I think at the core it comes down to something a member of the Adderbury Morris Men (who were visiting us from England) said to me on Sunday night, about an hour into the third straight late night of pickup dancing. The Adderbury Morris Men are a primo traditional team, with very strong ideas about the Morris. I thanked one of their members for coming, and expressed my hope that the differences between Morris in England and Morris here at this Ale were not too much for their comfort. He said that it's mostly very much what you see in the UK, but more importantly his team was happy to see so many people who clearly loved the Morris so much. Yes, nearly 300 people gave up their holiday weekend to travel great distances to stay in less than luxurious accommodations for no other reason than their love of the Morris.
And that, my friends, brings us straightaway to the pickup dancing, which is the reason many people give for why they come to the Ale and is the very definition of Morris-love. There is a major evening event every night of the Ale: On Friday the "mass dances" for the weekend are taught, on Saturday there is a contra-dance (with the best partnering you will ever find, meaning every person up and down the set is wholly with you at every move, as if every contra figure were a variant of a gypsy), and on Sunday there is skit night. But towards the end of each of these events we are all chomping at the bit to get on with it, to clear the floor, to call up the musicians, and to dance anything at all with whoever wants to. The newer dancers (and by that I mean dancers who have been dancing for less then 10 or 15 years) get pulled into dances and traditions they don't know. Sometimes dances are taught. Sometimes an individual team will get up and dance as hard as they ever have. Through all of this there is nothing but happiness on the faces of the dancers. Nobody is dancing close to the ground. All corner dances are done with a sense of glorious challenge. You keep saying, "I should go to bed" but 2am or 3am or dawn comes and you can't pull yourself away because there's another dance and when will you have this opportunity again.
Not just to dance, really, but to dance with these people. Who love this as much as you do.
This is not Morris dance, per se, which in my mind means a team that develops into a unit through working hard over the course of many months and years to develop a sense of being a team and a dance style and a repertoire. And then, through public dance and music, a Morris team provides a sense of community to its home area. If you're out on a summer's evening, you just might run into the Morris dancers, you never know, and that will bring a smile to your face and, just maybe at the smallest subconscious level, an appreciation that there is music and dance and song that exists wholly outside the world of the "music industry" (talk about an oxymoron).
But that's not what the pickup dancing is. At the pickup dancing, all of the skills you have developed that you didn't even realize you were developing and you didn't even realize were skills - the sense of dance patterns, and hanky coordination, and providing bell percussion with your own legs -- all of these things become the tools, the mechanisms, the doorways that allow you to be with the other people who are dancing with you in the room. As a way of connecting with other people, it is a thousand times better than smalltalk at a cocktail party and a million times better than Facebook.
And there's the singing, here and there throughout the weekend. And the inside jokes, or perhaps what I mean is the private community references (there are many people who read the title of this journal entry and knew immediately what it would be about, by finishing the musical line). And the history you develop with the other dancers. And the workshops. And the tours, when you separate off and board the buses and dance around the towns near the Ale location, stopping midway at a pub, of course, where you sing and dance inside. This can be a time to get to know the other teams on your tour, a smaller subset of the intimidatingly large number of Morris dancers at the Ale in general. And there are countless moments in specific dances, or in specific songs, or in a small fine conversation on the porch of a lodge overlooking a lake, that you would gladly pay all of your discretionary income for except that these are things that cannot be bought at any price.
That's the Ale: Priceless moments and the joy of Morris.