When I'm at an Ale I find that I am actually living in my romanticized fantasy notion of a world where people sing and dance, as a matter of course, without self-consciousness, as a way of being together. Everybody at an Ale speaks the gestural language of Morris. By the time you leave you can imagine that this is the norm and it's the rest of the time that you must live on a planet that is artificial and absurd, that denies itself the most basic of pleasures, even mocking them. There is a great comfort in going off where you can dance all night to squeezeboxes, with dances and traditions you may not even know. At an Ale you can sit down next to Rick Nagler at breakfast and start singing and he will join in with sweet pleasure and some folks will surround you and sing while others will simply sip their coffee as if there is nothing out of the ordinary here. Because of course there isn't, and that's what I find so seductive.
I grew up attending folk festivals with my parents, which at their best could be much the same, except without the knee-destroying muscle-wearout dancing. Also, to a large extent, folk festivals such as I speak of divide performer from audience; at a Morris Ale there is no such division -- there is simply an Ale. No wonder my friend Shannon can refer to herself as an "Ale Junkie".
But what do you do at an Ale? You set up your tent or move into your bunk, in time for the Friday night session when "massed dances" are taught -- the dances you will all be doing together over the course of the weekend, during breaks from the individual team show dances. Then you stay up as late as you can for "pickup dancing". On Saturday you divide up into separate buses for "tours", which involve dancing around various locations with, always, a pub stop in the middle. Saturday night there is a contra-dance, followed by more pickup dancing. On both Friday and Saturday night there is usually a singing session to compete with the pickup dancing. Sunday morning there are workshops, then back to the buses for shorter tours ending with everybody together. Sunday night is "skit night" which isn't as stupid as you might imagine, then more dancing or singing. You drive home on Monday and hope you don't fall asleep at the wheel.
I have a memory from the last Ale I attended, one of the most wonderful memories I hold. On Sunday night at perhaps 2 am we danced a "Joy of Six" version of Black Joke. Joy of Six is a bit of silliness when you get six dancers who each know a version of the same dance in a different Morris tradition and you stick them all together and dance it at the same time, as if you were one set. This can look like performance art -- in fact, there was a glorious Joy of Six for Jockey to the Fair given as an actual performance one year at a skit night that was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. But being in the middle of a Joy of Six, well, I still have a warm happy feeling about it.
I could try to explain why, but the explanation is valid only within the Ale World. Out here in Muggleland the words are meaningless.