Why Bother?

Where is your practice taking you?

Seriously, when we start practicing something – running, learning, writing, whatever – it is often with a goal in mind. “I’m going to practice running so that I can finish the Spartan Sprint.” I’ve got a specific place and time and goal there. “I’m going to go to medical school and practice scholarship until I get to put M.D. after my name.”

Even more amorphous goals, like “I’m going to practice meditation until I achieve inner peace” has a goal. But there is another kind of practice. I saw it this last weekend, at a performance art  event. And one incident in particular made me think about how much more important the journey can be, regardless of the destination.

First Dance

Not my friends, but an idea of how cool their dance was.

Yesterday I watched a young woman experience her first dance in a certain partnered style. Her partner was a very experienced dancer, one of the instructors at the conference, in fact, a man who is very much in demand across the country for his skill, his engagement, and his unique and effervescent style.

He didn’t let the woman down – their dance was beautiful, accompanied by showtunes with his sure hand guiding her inexperienced form through an intimate and improvisatory dance. It was amazing to watch, and those of us who knew that it was her first time on the floor felt privileged to see how her face lit up as they moved together. As the music faded, and their bodies stilled, both breathing heavily and smiling, a friend standing next to me whispered, “*He’s ruined her. No one else will be able to give her a dance like that.”

I thought about it, and shook my head. “No, I don’t think so. It’s not his experience that gave her that dance. It’s the connection.  She’ll be able to find that with people who haven’t been dancing that long. She’ll just have to be picky.”

Getting There

That experienced dancer is something like Carnegie Hall – practice can get you there on the floor with him. There are people who would consider it an honor to be on the stage in his company – I know, I’m one of them, and when I am at an exhibition sharing a stage with him it’s always an honor. I think the best way to describe what it is that makes him special is this: he isn’t good because he’s a performer – he’s a performer because he’s good. He developed his dance practice through focusing not only on the technical steps and counts and rhythms, but also through how those skills connected him with his partner.

It doesn’t matter if there is an audience watching or if it’s just him in a rehearsal hall – he puts himself completely into the practice of that specific dance, whoever it’s with, and for that time you believe it is the most important moment of his life.
Perhaps it is, I don’t know. What I do know is that when the audiences are clapping and cheering and he’s looking embarrassed and coy, it’s not false modesty. I think he pretty much forgets that they are there. I’ve seen him get so engrossed and focused on the dance that he hasn’t even realized other people were there (amusingly, he didn’t know I saw his dance with the novice, and it took someone showing him a photo of me watching to convince him I’d even been in the room).

A Life Like Practice

When your practice is the same as your performance, is that a journey with a destination, or have you already arrived? It seems to me that perhaps you can have practice for the sake of practice, and rather than doing things for the hope of some other goal, you do things for the sake of doing them.

Some of the more productivity-minded among us (and yes, I say “us” because I’m a prime culprit) will say “what’s the point?” If I’m not going to do the Spartan Sprint, do I still run the 3.6 miles? If I’m not going to be in my room, do I bother making the bed? If I’m never going to make it to Carnegie Hall – or even the local coffeeshop – should I bother practicing guitar?

If I’m not getting the reward, is it worth it to do the work?

The answer, like so many things, is it depends.

Acceptable Risk

So much for the "straight & narrow".

It depends on how important the destination is to you. It depends on whether you can see value in the practice even if you never reach the place you wanted to go. That’s a risk that you take any time you start a journey: you may never get there.

Can you accept that? It can be pretty hard. It’s difficult not to attach words like “failure” and “inadequate” to those journeys that don’t end up where the map showed you headed. Are you lost, or are you wandering? Are you in the wrong place, or are you in the place you were going whether you knew it or not?

Only you can say for sure. If you’re like me, the answer may change from day to day, from joyous “Wow! How did I get here?” to a desolate, cursing “How the [deleted] did I get here?

My friend the dancer has a great technique for dealing with that, though.

Practice as Home

Saturday evening had several scheduled performances, including showcases by both me and him. Due to some miscommunication with other performing groups and the venue the plans were cancelled, re-arranged, or otherwise thrown into disarray. I hadn’t talked with him very much about it, but Sunday at an informal post-conference brunch I found him in a practice room, going through some basic steps with his assistant. “Hey, Gray,” he said, nodding towards the noise of the many people socializing outside. “After last night, I just couldn’t really think, felt sort of lost, so I came in here…so I could just move, and maybe find myself.”

I wish I could say that with those words this blog post materialized fully formed in beautiful 5-part epiphany within my skull. It didn’t. I nodded, we just chatted a bit, I watched him dance a bit more (including that memorable first dance) and we went our separate ways.

But this morning, as I got out of bed early to prepare for my flight, I realized that I had been feeling pretty lost as well, and with another conference in a few days, it seemed like a good idea to not skip the morning sitting meditation. I sat down in half-lotus, pulled my spine straight, sank into the breath…and realized I felt some comfort in that practice. Regardless of where I was, hotel or crash space or my room in Seattle – that practice was a familiar, secure place.

It was not a home…but it was a part of home.

So if you’re looking for a reason to practice beyond a destination, there’s a pretty good one: practice can be a comfort when the world goes sideways. Whether you’re a world class performing-arts educator or just an itinerant blogger, the practice you do becomes a space you can hold for yourself where you can relax into the familiar and remind yourself of who you really are.

That’s good practice.

1 thought on “Why Bother?”

  1. I think that today’s observations can help you to answer your own questions from the last one~ wanting a home or staying with a tent?… ” It doesn’t matter if there is an audience watching or if it’s just him in a rehearsal hall – he puts himself completely into the practice of that specific dance, whoever it’s with, and for that time you believe it is the most important moment of his life”… It’s been a really long time but I seem to remember that this is how you treat relationships. So ask yourself: Do you hold yourself back from having these experiences in your life, or not?

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