006 – Interview with Paul Graves

Craig: Hello, I’m Craig Constantine.

Paul: I’m Paul Graves.

Craig: And this is parkour they said. Paul Graves is difficult to pin down. I had trouble trying to figure out how to introduce them, but that’s not what I mean. I mean he is literally difficult to pin down. He’s frenetic, and yet laser focused. His playing of the full body motion arcade game, Speed of Light, has been described as terrifying. He works for, oh wait that’s redacted. Okay, well let’s say he’s a project manager for software development teams. [00:00:30] He’s also a tree climbing, in-line skating, dancing, singing, Capoeiraista, mover, who also seems to enjoy cooking and writing. Welcome Paul!

Paul: Thank you. I don’t think I’m that laser focused. That’s the only-

Craig: No, I’m sticking with laser focused.

Introduction to Capoeira

Craig: So in Capoeira, the roda is this circle that most people have seen, where you have two people in the center, and if you don’t know what you’re looking at you think they are playing or dancing. Can you kinda unpack what’s going on there a little bit?

Paul: [00:01:00] A little bit. Usually you have a circle of people singing and dancing, clapping as well, call and response singing, and two people in the middle doing all sorts of inversions, and swirls, and spins, and it looks very choreographed, because you don’t see contact, generally speaking. The roda is the place where Capoeira lives. It’s the place where all of the training that we do is brought to its actual state.

Two people start together with the instruments, paying respect to the music. Then, based on the rhythm [00:01:30] and the words of the song, and the direction they’re receiving from the people running that circle. They have a conversation in movement, a dialogue back and forth with a call and response, just like what you’re hearing from the song, but it’s all with movement, physical movement. With attacks, with escapes, we call them attaque, and esquiva, and floreio, which is the flourishes, the pretty movements that people really think of when they think of Capoeira. It’s a dance, it’s a fight, it’s a game, and more [00:02:00] than that it’s a microcosm for life, and a place to escape the rest of all those things.

Craig: Okay, so obviously you love Capoeira, and I know you’ve done it for off and on in the beginning, but basically 15 years of this. So what happened to the love of your life there?

Paul: As and why did it stop, or how did it start?

Craig: Yeah, how did it stop?

Paul: Okay, Capoeira was the place where I learned social interaction. I was an Air Force kid. I moved like 30 times now. I’m 34. I moved all over the place, and [00:02:30] there was a movie many years ago, first got me into Capoeira. I didn’t get to try it until I was a senior in high school. At that point I was a complete loner. I had no external social skills, but everything I saw in Capoeira was fascinating to me. It fully engaged me, so all through college, and then as I started my career in San Antonio, and continued, I loved Capoeira, it was a big part of my life.

In that, I also learned about politics, and about things not working well. So there’s a lot of human interaction pieces to it, that were very challenging for me. [00:03:00] I felt the system I had been taught, and the things I believed, did not remain consistent. The things I had been taught 10 and 12 years before, were not where the art was at that point, or especially in my community. I felt like there was no chance I would ever reach a place where I could be teaching, which had been a goal at one point in my life.

Craig: Oh, okay.

Paul: I kind of lost the connection, the-

Craig: Yeah, the joy-

Paul: The incentive, the carrot disappeared for me. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be that thing anymore, [00:03:30] and I didn’t know where I was in it. There was some specific social things that happened, and a relationship that ended that kind of made me have the conversation with myself of why am I doing this. The answer was that, there wasn’t a good reason, other than that I had always done it.

Craig: It was just the thing that you have been doing for so long.

Paul: Yes. Capoeira comes with a literal baptism. You get baptized into Capoeira. It’s called Batizado. That’s your first big event, and we have them every year, and all the guests come. It’s a baptism of earth, because they put you on the ground. So it’s very [00:04:00] much a thing, and that’s also where you first receive your Capoeira name, your apelido, your nickname in Capoeira, your alias of Capoeira. I was “Spaghetti”. I was tall, thin, and white. Not much has changed. That name is the name I went by, and still many people called me nothing else from about the age of 19 or 20 … wow yeah, more than 10 years. That identity was who I was. Leaving [00:04:30] that was pretty traumatic for me, and at that point I started going by my middle name. That was when I became Paul. So it was kind of a big moment for me. Leaving that was very difficult, and I was left not knowing who I was, or what I was going to do, but I ended up in parkour.

What are you working on now?

Craig: So I gather that movement has always been something that you’ve been drawn to. You don’t strike me as the kind of guy who suddenly discovered Capoeira, and then started moving.

Paul: No, definitely not. I’m the youngest of four by several years. So, as a tag a long little brother, I was always moving to [00:05:00] catch up with my siblings, as they receded into the distance on the bikes that they knew how to ride-

Craig: Literally trying to keep up.

Paul: Yeah, we got to live, my father was Air Force, lived remote for a year when I was three. I turned four there, 1986 and ’87. We lived in a mountainside in the rural Oneonta, Alabama and I got to run through the woods and play at age three and four. I’ve never really stopped doing that, climbing trees, running through the woods, playing in the water. In elementary school I always loved [00:05:30] everything to do with recess, that time. When I was in fifth grade a friend of mine gave me a Super Nintendo game for my birthday, but my mom would never have allowed us to own something like that, so we took it to Toys R Us, and exchanged it for Jeffrey Bucks, in store credit, because we didn’t have a receipt. I’m surprised they let us do it. I bought my first pair in-line skates. Roller derby in-line skates, black and purple, these beautiful things, and some pads. I’ve been skating ever since. Is a huge … That was my emotional escape, [00:06:00] my physical escape. Just going to you can’t stop, many, many miles. I think that’s really, it’s also a complete loaner activity. Always alone, I only had one or two friends that ever skated with me. I think that’s really what was in line … in line, ouch-

Craig: No, that’s good, I like it-

Paul: I’m only upset because I didn’t mean to do it. If I had meant to do it, I be really proud of myself right now. It was being able to say okay, here is another way that I can start exploring other things I like, [00:06:30] music, and dance, and things like that-

Craig: Right Capoeira, you mean when you discovered that.

Paul: Yes.

Craig: And then, you divorced yourself from Capoeira, however you want to put that, and you moved on and discovered parkour. What was it about parkour that drew you in?

Paul: So in 2000, I don’t know, ‘1 or ‘2, I had just gotten into college, and I had a friend. We were outside playing around. We had climbed on the buildings at college, and all sorts of stuff, but if you’ll notice that date, it was several years pre YouTube. So one day we were out running around, and he ran and did a stall on his hand on a wall, and he was like, [00:07:00] “Freestyle walking, it’s like skateboarding without a skateboard!” That was the first time I ever heard of parkour. That right there, that moment.

Craig: I think there really is a thing called no-boarding. I think Julie Angel has a video on no-boarding. I think it’s people skateboarding with no skateboards.

Paul: But it was also like … I’m sure that was kind of a niche thing, because people were already doing movement outside. We were climbing buildings, we were playing Ninja Turtles, Jackie Chan. We already had examples of these things for ourselves, but I had not seen … Actually, [00:07:30] it was probably that long ago that we started seeing Joe Eigo I believe it was, and there were a couple of videos I remember seeing on the internet those days, again, pre YouTube, that were passed around of people doing really cool things.

Capoeira became my life, and so I thought it was really awesome once I started seeing videos, like ’06, ’07, the Dvinsk Clan, the free running, some of these other things. These videos were super cool, but I didn’t … I would try a few things, like, “Yeah, this is like those things they do, only way more so,” but I couldn’t divorce it … [00:08:00] I was so into Capoeira that I wasn’t going to take on another passion. It was like seven days a week, several hours a day. Where was I gonna fit it?

Eventually when I left Capoeira, I was like, “I’ve always wanted to try this.” And it turned out a friend’s sister was dating a guy that no one had ever heard of named Jereme Sanders. I had never heard of. I started going out to classes. A year or two later, I’m teaching the classes with him. A year or two later, I’m the director of member services of Parkour [00:08:30] Visions. A year later, I’m teaching Capoeira for movement at Art of Retreat in New York City. So yeah, it kind of snowballed from there. It escalated quickly, you might say.

Movement and Conversation; From Capoeira to Parkour

Craig: One of the things that I see, when I’ve seen Capoeira is, it’s clearly a conversation. You can see that it could be combative and antagonistic, but there’s a conversation happening there. A lot of times in parkour, there are certain people I have in mind, that conversation is happening when you train with them, and in other situations that’s missing. So I’m just wondering [00:09:00] what your thoughts are, from an original Capoeira point of view, coming into parkour.

Paul: Sure. Capoeira is … One of the most common books on it is called The Origins of the Dance Fight Game. We can’t even manage to get a name right on it, because it’s more than each of those things.

Craig: What? A sport that doesn’t know what to call itself?

Paul: Strong parallels right. There’s a big part of that is, how you respond to external things beyond your control, and then how you master then. That’s the part [00:09:30] that makes it completely organic. Why do they never hit each other? Well they are trying to-

Craig: They are trying to-

Paul: But you see it coming, and you get out of the way. Now in the same way, and this is actually, I’m a wordsmith, I’m a poet, I love words and that’s the analogy I’ve always preferred for Capoeira, you learn a vocabulary of movements. You can think of those as a language. Then the grammar and the structure, if I were to say to you, “Hey how’s it going?” That might be doing a gentle movement near you, and occupying your space, interacting with your environment, making you respond physically. You can choose a response like, [00:10:00] “Oh, I’m interesting. How are you?” Or you can say, “Get away from me.”

Craig: I’m feeling injured and vulnerable-

Paul: Right, and so that is exactly the same way, informed a little bit by music, but also you choose. If someone comes in really hot and heavy from the beginning, you’re like, “Quit yelling at me.” It’s almost the same level of interaction, but also, from the very beginning in Capoeira, no matter what level you are, you can play the game with anyone. My first summer in Capoeira, with no experience, feeling like [00:10:30] a gawky, barely out of his teens kid who knew nothing about what he was doing, surrounded by these Adonis examples of human beings … Was that everyone was in every show, and we did shows at every public library in San Antonio, which is like 20-plus separate performances. In public, without a shirt, with just white skinny pants on. It was very difficult for me at that point in my life, but I learned that was part of it.

You can play with anyone. They’re not playing down to you. Is like having a conversation with someone, where [00:11:00] your language is their second language. You don’t think there are any less intelligent, or any less capable of carrying on the conversation-

Craig: In fact, you try harder. If I know that is not your first language, then I’m trying to be more particular about the things that I ask of you.

Paul: Exactly, you’re controlling … Your word choice must be more careful, so that you don’t send the wrong message, and your awareness for their space, and that is how it is to play Capoeira with someone, and we do call it playing Capoeira, that is all it is ever called, with someone who is not yet as versed as you are maybe. [00:11:30] That mindset around coaching Capoeira, you learn from beginners as well. You start teaching very early on.

Craig: What was the phrase-

Paul: “I am a master who learns. I am a student who teaches.” It was the first quote I read when I opened Nestor Capoeira‘s, The Little Capoeira Book, which was my first Capoeira teacher. Later I un-learned a lot of the things I taught myself wrong, but in that-

Craig: Ah, the human existence right?

Paul: Yes. Well, until I had other people. The social aspect is how we learn.

Craig: Oh, that’s a good-

Paul: …and that ties [00:12:00] in directly to, how does this now all apply to parkour? Well, in parkour, we are moving, and we’re still having that conversation, but rather than having it in this pure philosophical realm where it’s just two people talking across a table, and I say that to say that the roda is just a circle on the ground.

Craig: Right, there’s two people talking across the proverbial table in a circle.

Paul: There’s nothing else in that space. Now you start adding obstacles, obstacles to understanding, obstacles to reaching what may or may not be your goal … [00:12:30] Or, and then when you talk about people who do this, contact improvisation comes to mind and there’s specific movers, but when you play with your environment, and I use the term play from an educational sense, not a trivial sense. That’s always a conversation. From a Capoeira sense, playing with your environment is engaging with your environment, responding to your environment. When you do a thing, find out what the environments doing, come back. It’s almost like stationary Capoeira is like, imagine this wall is just a person, in [00:13:00] a set scheme-

Craig: In a set position-

Paul: Like in a block. Now what can I do around that? That gets a little further into what I did once I got with the two together, but I think that conversation piece comes from taking the landscape of the conversation that you’re having with someone, or with movement, and then how do these things fit into this conversation of movement. So is not always imposing my will. I want to do this line, this way. That can be one mindset that you see people have, versus this place … [00:13:30] I want to play with the idea of how I would vault over this to that.

Craig: Right, what opportunities are here.

Paul: Right, and those are very different mindsets that both exist. I know a lot of people might approach their training both ways, different days. For me, I usually need some sort of that engagement piece, or it doesn’t seem as fun to me. Just doing that same line over and over, it can be like optimizing, there’s different things there, but that is what really came to me.

Craig: Everybody [00:14:00] who has been to the situations where someone, or a small group of people, are working on a particular challenge in a line, and then you develop the bystander group, and suddenly it’s a group of people watching other people do parkour. The question I always have is, where does that actually come from? Does that stem from the people who are doing — let’s call that a line — the people who are doing that line, that challenge, or is it somehow coming from the people that are watching what’s going on? Is there an ego at play there somewhere?

Paul: Sure, I think that it can really depend on the type of challenge. [00:14:30] So there’s something to be said for fun. You’re with people who are pushed through the same type of challenge you’re doing. That’s one thing that we want to foment at jams. Where you get those people together to challenge each other and do something really hard, and there might be a question of accessibility. Other people will start watching that, and that can be super discouraging. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be done, at all. On the contrary, it’s a really important part of it, but I feel like there is a … very often a, “I could never do that,” syndrome-

Craig: Sure-

Paul: Which we hear constantly from bystanders-

Craig: Which I totally associate with!

Paul: …and I feel like that, [00:15:00] it’s … I mean I don’t want to call it “ego”, because that makes people think of the … Of being too proud-

Craig: “Id” might be a better word.

Paul: Id might be. Yeah so, that the internal feeling, the sense of shame that you’re not good enough to do that challenge, or that you might never be able to, or you thought you were doing pretty good but look at these guys. These are all things that make people unwilling to continue moving in that moment.

Craig: They disengage from that conversation that we’ve been describing-

Paul: They’d rather just watch, because there is safety in spectating. When I think about communication, let’s tie this back- [00:15:30] it’s about a place where you can have people … You can choose what communicating you are doing as a group, and if it becomes clear that two or three people’s challenge is disengaging a huge number of people at that jam, being able to create a group of challenges, or similar challenges, or whatever it is to give other people something they can find manageable and engaging, and know that’s okay. That’s kind of about creating safe spaces, but I think it’s very much about being aware [00:16:00] of what’s being communicated to whom, and who or what they’re communicating back through their movement or lack of movement. In Capoeira, if the person doesn’t play with you, they don’t say anything to you, they don’t do anything, you wouldn’t just kick them.

Craig: Well you might; I wouldn’t!

Paul: I mean if you didn’t have a reason, no. If there’s in the roda, they showed up to the place where the conversation happens, and they don’t say anything, that instantly is a concern. You can’t have a conversation with only one side. [00:16:30] That would require a stop right there. That game is over. Someone else would call the game, and have the two people step out, or one person else step in. So in my mind, if you’re at the place where everyone has come to play, to move, to train hard … If “game” isn’t what works for your mind for that, to get that training and with other people, and to share that experience. People who feel disengaged from that, they’re communicating something too. I think it’s [00:17:00] super dependent on who is there, the situation, and being able to play with those energies, which is something I also picked up in Capoeira. The understanding, why might this motivation be happening. What is someone feeling, or not feeling in this moment.

I think my happiest times are engagement with others. That isn’t necessarily the truth for everyone, but … If you’re never engaged by training with other people, then jams aren’t probably something you’re attending anyway.

Returning to nature; A critical piece of parkour

Craig: I want to talk about [00:17:30] the return to roots. Get into the whole-

Paul: Sure, Return to the Source.

Craig: Return to the Source.

Paul: Very briefly, I took a hiatus from my career in San Antonio. I was invited by Tyson to come out to Parkour Visions, and see how they run things, maybe open a gym at some point in the future in Texas, whatever was going to look like. I was director of member services for about a year and a half. Then I spent some more time there, getting to explore it, because I had been working a lot in the gym, and hadn’t gotten to explore the northwest. I got to spend a lot of time, especially [00:18:00] the end of that, with Rafe Kelley. He was former head coach, and one of the founding type guys from Parkour Visions. He now does Evolve, Move, Play, is what he calls his organization.

He was inviting me out to do more movement in nature. If you’ve never been in the Pacific Northwest, visit all the nature there. It’s incredible. It’s the most benign wilderness I’ve ever heard of. Just gorgeous, you can be in snow in the morning, and then skinny-dipping in the Puget Sound in the afternoon. It’s just pretty amazing. [00:18:30] He’s from north of Seattle, and Return to the Source is going to his father’s land and camping. It’s a week of going to different national parks up there, going to water, to rocks, to trees, cold water immersion, combative and roughhousing, climbing together, moving together, but really tribe. Creating a tribe of about 20 people-

Craig: Right, a literal retreat, where people are cooking together, and spending time together, and setting up camps together.

Paul: Absolutely, [00:19:00] and with a goal of exploring what humans evolved to be, or as to say what our ancestors experienced by being in nature, by being in the wild, by having this interaction with nature-

Craig: I always say rediscovering your birthright.

Paul: Sure, and experiencing what that does to you mentally, physiologically, physically. How you feel differently just by having been in nature. Then challenging yourself in a lot of fun ways as well. This [00:19:30] includes kind of culminating, and climbing up through a waterfall cave on one of the last days. It’s just a glorious … You’re overcoming challenges together, and exploring nature, and yeah. That was this past summer, June 2016 I went, and it was really incredible for me. It changed my relationship with nature, which is a big, big one-

Craig: That says a lot right?

Paul: Yeah. I had mentioned, as a kid I had been running around in the woods, but somewhere along the way [00:20:00] I did software development. Now I manage software development. I sit at a computer so much of my life, I had gotten … I nearly drowned in a river in Texas when I was three. So I had a point where I really kind of was very averse to natural water. So it got to a place where we were doing swimming in lakes, and being in rivers, and running down the river and things, and it was just a fantastic application of movement that I did. That I enjoy, but also really covered everything I’d learned in all my evolution in parkour, [00:20:30] and Capoeira. The social element as well, coaching even. It was really cool.

Craig: Most people’s perception of parkour, is that it’s an urban activity. People have taken the time to train, and to study, and to read will have discovered that actually has roots that go literally into the woods. What you’re just talking about with the Return to the Source seems to be something that I think people miss in their parkour training. There seems to be something missing there. If you’re only practicing [00:21:00] in an urban environment, there’s a piece.

Paul: Yeah, and Rafe would say that you’re missing the critical piece. That’s a big part of that. That is actually part of his mission, is to be teaching people how to rediscover the rest of the world. So the rest of the world is outside of our cities. I think that is totally understandable, if you were in an area, that was full of abandoned buildings, and that was the city you were in-

Craig: This is your natural environment, at least in the beginning-

Paul: That’s your environment, but movement [00:21:30] isn’t restricted to the context of the place you came from. For me, especially … In the same way that one of the things I enjoy now in parkour that I could not have in Capoeira is that I do Capoeira now between trees, or while balancing on rails, or somewhere that has environments, because it’s more interesting to me. That’s not where it, where it came from originally, I don’t pretend it was, but I’m applying those skills in a broader place. I feel that once you step out into other environments in the world, try rock climbing, try [00:22:00] trees.

Rafe likes to say, when you grab a tree, your hands get uniformly, unlike a bar, where you have calluses in one spot. If you’re grabbing tree branches of different varieties, and different thicknesses all the time, his whole head is a callous. It’s a completely different thing that happens. That’s fine I’m not trying to say that those are better or worse, just that there are other obstacles in the world, and when you interact with them, you have a chance to have new relationships, new conversations with your movement, and with nature, your environment, and the obstacles, which I personally [00:22:30] find terrifying, because everything is not square edges. Also, man it’s-

Craig: It really wakes you up-

Paul: Yes-

Craig: To the proprioception, to the spatial awareness.

Paul: Very much.

Craig: The majority of parkour that I’ve seen, I think people would agree when I say this, the majority of parkour is human beings running, using their hands but vaulting type of movements, flips and spins, but they’re moving over the built spaces. Or they’re moving over [00:23:00] rocks, and there’s a whole aspect of arboreal existence that goes back millions of years, and getting out into that natural environment … The first time you step under tree branch and brab it with your hand, your brain just goes, “Oh I know what that is.”

Paul: Yeah and you see, lachés are a huge thing, brachiation you’ll see on bar sets and things. That’s cool to train and there’s some really neat things that have come out of it, definitely, but when you get into a huge batch [00:23:30] of a tree that just sprawls over several square yards [crosstalk 00:23:33]-

Craig: Yards right-

Paul: And you’re able to, everywhere around you is a thing you can grab, that could take you, different area if you’re pulling or pushing. It’s an experience that, as someone who is enjoying and appreciating this movement art of exploration, parkour, whatever you want to call this thing that we do, this movement stuff, it’s nourishing, is another word you might use for it, because it’s like, “Oh yeah, I love [00:24:00] trying new obstacle movement because this is where I get to explore what the things I’ve trained in the urban environment, how do they apply here, and vice versa.” It’s just kind of like how do we, and again, I come from a very play centric background. In Capoeira, we play. No matter how were working we call it playing. So for me, engaging work is play. How do I play with this to become better at all the things, or whatever else my [inaudible 00:24:29] might be?

Three words to describe your practice?

Craig: And [00:24:30] of course, the final question, three words to describe your movement.

Paul: Difficult, heavy, pungent.

Craig: No, you did not just go there. No, for real. Three words to describe your movement.

Paul: Difficult, oh wait no … Constant, playful, engagement.

Craig: Okay.

Paul: Some by that, I guess I mean I like to be [00:25:00] engaging, not only with people but with spaces, and ideas in movement from a variety of sources, different disciplines. Playful for me, as a Capoeirista is how you attack things from different angles, how you come from above, below, from the side, and you find the pieces that are hidden in it. You find the enigmas in it. You find the places that go together. By constant, I don’t mean every [00:25:30] waking moment so much as, not becoming stagnant-

Craig: Complacent, right?

Paul: Or complacent.

Craig: Thank you very much Paul.

Paul: Thank you.