Practice’s Reward

It’s a busy time. I’m a travelin’ man for the next couple of months, pretty much a different city and often a different continent or country every week. It’s already been wearing on me – and it’s not going to get any better. In fact, there was a moment, deep in the night of sleeplessness and discomfort on the train down from Seattle, that I wondered “Why do I do this?

Then, last night, a couple of people reminded me.

Spreading the Love

Last night was the justification for being here in San Francisco. The reason for coming down was to see friends, to spend time with them as well as my friend who just moved across the country (she used to work here in the city). But I certainly don’t have the disposable income just to jaunt down the coast on a whim, so I had to justify it – and luckily, I was able to make it at least pay for itself by booking a class for a short presentation at a local community space.

They were having a sort of dance party soiree, and I was kind of the “opening act” – giving a one-hour lecture/demonstration on some fun variations of steps people already knew. But it was coming at the end of a long day spent walking the streets and hills with friends, hanging out at cafés and walking some more, and that was after a late night cigars-and-chocolate party my host had thrown on Saturday night (thanks, Tony!) after a sleepless train ride.

Not sure if I’m making myself clear here: I was a tired puppy. Add in to all this that I still have a “day” job, which, while it is mobile and on my laptop, still requires time and attention. So throw in some hours of working in what I affectionately call “the video mines” to that list. It’s been an exhausting few days, for many, many reasons. Yet the hour was approaching, last night, when I needed to get up there on the stage and do my thing.

The Gray Stooge

I don’t know about you, but the more tired I am, the harder it gets to be efficient. To be graceful. For example, while I had managed to get my presenter duds on (ya gotta look professional, you know), I had quite a fun little process as we got ready to take the car that my host lent us (thanks, Tony!) to the community center. It went something like this:

  • Open the garage door
  • Put my bag of props in the trunk.
  • Put up the convertible top.
  • Turn and start to put the key (one of those newfangled proximity type things) in my breast pocket.
  • Fumble the key and drop it…right through the slats in the floor of the garage.
  • Remember hearing Tony saying “Just don’t drop the key down through the slats in the floor, heh, that would be a real pain.” (sorry, Tony!)
  • Note that I now have 20 minutes to get to the venue, and no way to do it.
  • Note that it is also impossible to open the car trunk now, and all my props are back there…
  • Run in circles, scream and shout.

OK, I didn’t actually do that last bit. In fact, my partner for the presentation helped a lot in terms of just staying calm, evaluating options (that included cabs, climbing harnesses, and the possibility of her being lost forever in the catacombs of San Francisco) and finding alternatives. That’s one of the first rewards of practice; when you’ve done something like presenting for years and years, you have a lot of last-minute crises. The first few times those seem like the end of the world. After a while, though, they just seem like the next damn thing, and you know that you can deal with it, find an alternate route, and keep going.

Turned out the best alternative was: the spare key in the house. We made it to the venue just as we were supposed to go on. And that’s when the practice really paid off.


I got in, the DJ slowly faded the music, the house manager asked how soon I could be ready. “I’m ready now,” I told him, and he looked surprised. Score one for me: part of being a pro is that I occasionally manage to make other people’s lives easier, rather than more difficult. Five minutes later I had a room filled with fifty people, my demo partner (correction: demo awesome, that’s the new terminology) was standing behind me, and I began to speak.

Suddenly I was in the zone. It’s a subject I know forwards and backwards, not the least because I helped develop it, and as I walked people through the movements, through the permutations, there was laughter, there was engagement, there were people struggling to figure out steps and then suddenly beaming as it came together. Every word coming out of my mouth felt like the right word, the timing, the tone, it all just fell into place so effortlessly. I held that group in the palm of my hand for an hour, and then drew to a graceful conclusion (“Here, let me show you one more thing…“) and sent them on their way to play with what they learned, or ignore it and do their own thing out on the floor.

It was quite possibly the best presentation I’ve ever given in terms of just my own performance. How could that have happened when I was tired, drained, burned out?

The answer is: practice.

Familiarly Peculiar

All of the other things that contributed to me being tired were unfamiliar; trying to sleep in a train seat, trying to fit my body into a Miata, trying to navigate the streets of San Francisco during one of the busiest times of the year. They were a struggle. But when I got in front of that crowd, and slipped into that class that I’ve taught dozens of times and reviewed hundreds of times…that was a familiar space. I know that space. That’s where I can relax, where I know what to expect and how to handle things and what the rewards will be.

That’s the reward of practice. It gives you a home, a place where you can really relax into a known space and find a haven from the chaos around you. Sure, working out is good for the body, and there are all kinds of neurochemical reasons it’s good for the mind…but an even better reason is because when you are doing a workout, your world shrinks to a very simple thing: you have to do the steps to the workout. They are laid out, they are clear, and they have a definite beginning, middle, and end. With all the fuzzy boundaries and arbitrary goals and challenges of life, that can be luxury.

The reward of practice was not that I gave a good presentation; that was a side-effect. The reward of my practice was that I found, in the midst of the chaos, an hour of total comfort, where I knew exactly what to do, when to do it, and what I was there for.

What About the Couple?

Oh, yeah, I started this ramble with “last night a couple of people reminded me.” At the end of the presentation, there was the usual smattering of people who came up and said “Good job, great presentation, very entertaining, wow, your partner’s pretty,” etc. But one couple stuck out. I’d actually noticed them earlier on, and made a comment about the woman’s outfit, which was unusually lovely even for a party.

The man stuck out his hand, looked at me intently, and said “I want to thank you. This presentation…this has had a significant effect on our relationship.” He looked at her, she looked at him, and it was almost electric, the connection the two of them had. I smiled and said “You’re welcome” and watched them walk away.

I was mildly curious about what was “significant” – this particular set of moves is not especially deep or meaningful, in fact they’re designed to be light and casual and fun. But something in what I taught helped those two connect on a different level than they had before. Something I had done gave them the opening they needed to look at each other that way.

Mentally, I traveled back in time and tried to give that tired Gray trying to sleep on the train a glimpse of that couple moving together. That’s why you do this.

I don’t know if he heard. I just know that next time I’m him, I’ll try and listen harder for me and what I might be trying to say.

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