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Monkey Business

Parkour involves getting from point A to point B, on foot, as fast as possible, going over or through obstacles rather than taking the long (and, most would say, sensible) way around. Depending whom you ask, it's an extreme sport, an urban pastime, or a discipline verging on martial-arts-level seriousness – parkour's define-it-yourself ethos is a big part of its appeal.

Parkour was developed in France in the 1990s. Toronto's parkour scene has been growing since the early 2000s, and Dan Iaboni has been a fixture since the beginning. The tall, lanky twentysomething is one of the sport's best-known ambassadors and one of the leaders of PKTO, a group that promotes the sport across Southern Ontario and organizes training sessions, usually in downtown Toronto (chosen for its appealing variety of terrain).

In 2008, Iaboni launched The Monkey Vault in a cavernous yet inconspicuous space near Dufferin and Dupont, where bodies run, leap, roll, flip and, yes, wipe out with gleeful abandon. It offers traceurs (parkour practitioners) the chance to work on their skills in a safe, controlled environment – a refreshing respite from being chased off property for behaviour that others tend to perceive as suspicious.

Iaboni says that starting The Monkey Vault and finding space for PKTO had been on his mind for years. "Everyone was really excited when I said I'd put money down and we'd have our own home," says Iaboni. "It's something we dreamed about, to have our own place where we could train all day long and nobody could say anything."

Although he lacked experience at running a gym (his previous ventures include modifying cars and building computers), Iaboni started pulling things together, including insurance and a bank loan. "It was scary putting down my signature on the original lease document, because I didn't know what would really happen in the future, but I trusted myself," says Iaboni.

Building The Monkey Vault became a community project. The traceurs gutted the former carpet store (including, of all things, a chicken coop out back), stripping it back to four concrete walls. They added the gym's features – crash mats, a climbing wall, a foam pit, platforms, weights and the like – whenever Iaboni collected enough money. The elements are designed to mimic the ledges, walls and railings that traceurs tackle outdoors. Thanks to an army of volunteers, much of the work was done at minimal cost.

The gym opened nine months after Iaboni signed the lease. A delay that long would alarm most entrepreneurs, but Iaboni just shrugs. "Stuff grows organically with parkour, and we let it grow naturally and tried not to rush it. I always say 'we' because even though it's my gym and I'm paying the bills, it belongs to everyone in the parkour community."

One of The Monkey Vault's biggest benefits is that traceurs have somewhere to go when poor weather makes outdoor training treacherous. "Parkour used to die in November, and we didn't see anyone till the end of March," says Iaboni. "This [past winter, we had] the strongest community ever because nobody disappeared."

Having a home base has also allowed Iaboni to refine his teaching techniques. "Meeting and training with so many new people has improved my teaching skills a lot, and the whole system [of] getting people into parkour works much better now."

The Monkey Vault has 150 to 200 visitors a month, including 50 to 70 regulars. The vast majority are older teens and university students, and almost all are male. "We try to start up girls' programs, but they tend to disappear," says Iaboni.

Pricing is similar to that of a fitness club: monthly passes start at $72, and drop-in visits cost $15. Anyone who doesn't have the cash can get gym time in exchange for grunt work. Outdoor sessions, advertised on the website, are free.

The gym's revenue comes from memberships, drop-in fees, classes and the occasional corporate gig. Iaboni draws a modest salary to cover his basic needs, but most of the money goes back into the facility. He and other veteran traceurs offer performances and "media services" such as pre-production, choreography, safety management and editing, for the likes of Alliance Atlantis, Rogers, Scotiabank Nuit Blanche and Mazda. "Sometimes I get a bit of flak from people for doing [corporate jobs], but on the bright side, that's what's driving and funding the community, and without money going into the sport, it doesn't go anywhere," says Iaboni. "I don't think I used to understand that, and now that I'm doing it full-time, I understand it better."

Iaboni is passionate about encouraging people, especially children, to get active. "My biggest inspiration was my own brother – his school banned tennis balls and running at recess, and all they did is play cards," he says, rolling his eyes. "To me, that's the silliest thing in the world, but apparently it's not uncommon. Kids are meant to run and play and jump, and when we take those things away, it sends a horrible message. That's what leads to kids staying inside all day playing video games."

The Monkey Vault offers parkour workshops for kids and primary schools, and Iaboni hopes to get more involved with municipal fitness programs. He's training more instructors, but wants to keep expansion manageable. "We're trying to make the system more efficient before we go wider-scale. I don't want to go too fast or soon."

The Monkey Vault is not only an advancement for Toronto's parkour community, but it offers validation for its biggest advocate. "I've run into a lot of people [who] told me jumping around outside cannot be my job, and I'll grow up eventually and be normal," says Iaboni. "I'd say if anything, that was my biggest inspiration, to prove them all wrong and to show people you can turn a love into work, no matter what it is, if you are passionate enough…I love my job to death and wouldn't change [it for] anything in the world."
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