Jig & the Global Appeal of Irish Dancing

To make this documentary, Jig, Scottish director Sue Bourne was able to do what no one else had done before.

She approached An Commissiun – the governing body of the annual World Irish Dancing Championships – to request, and ultimately be granted, access to the 2010 “Worlds” (as the competitors and their retinues of parents and dance instructors refer to them).  Her intent was to tell the story of the contagious, competitive and athletic art form that is Irish dancing (yes, that same which you saw Jean Butler and Michael Flatley shoot to stardom doing).

In fact, many of the kids and teens you see profiled in Jig owe their initiation into this world to Riverdance (the dance show that had its birth as an interval feature lasting a little over five minutes at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin) and was then expanded to full show and toured the world .  As you hear several parents tell it, the kids saw the video, they became entranced and started mimicking the steps, then taking classes, and so on.

Bourne has selected an interesting assortment of dancers to illustrate just how global an obsession Irish dancing has become.  There’s a group of young women in Moscow who are coached by Shane, who flies over from his base in Munich every couple of weeks to train them, then there’s Sandun, a tall Sri Lankan teen who was adopted as a little boy by a Dutch couple and who has grown up in Holland, and there’s Joe Bitter, the Silicon Valley boy who bears some resemblance to a young Jonathan Rhys Meyers and shows such promise that his parents leave California to settle in Birmingham, England to be close to John Carey, a legendary former dancer and now much sought-after instructor. Carey also teaches John Whitehurst, an adorable ten-year-old who also shows talent and promise regardless of the jeers he’s had to endure from his classmates at school.

Two of the most interesting dancers profiled are ten-year-old competitors Brogan McCay, a blonde, chatty dynamo from Derry, Northern Ireland, and Julia O’Rourke, a more solemn Long Island girl, with a Philippine mother and Irish-American father, neither who had ever any interest in Irish dancing until their daughter picked it up.

To round out the group, there is a trio of older teen girl competitors from Ireland, England and Scotland who have been opponents on the stage for years and all are nearing the end of the age where they can still compete at the Worlds.

I have to confess, as someone who was mesmerized by Riverdance when it first blazed upon the scene, I was delighted back then to see the comparatively cooler attire of the dancers (black tights & shoes under velvet minidresses for the girls, dark trousers and shirts for the boys) and I just cannot for the life of me understand the enduring appeal of these curly, curly ringlet wigs that all competing girls will put on (even the older ones), and the garish Celtic-motif dresses (which cost thousands of dollars) that often come in DayGlo shades that would make you queasy if you stared at them too long.  And that’s not to mention the fake tan, orange foundation of the kind that was popular with Aer Lingus stews back in the Seventies, and heavy make-up (even on the 10-year-olds).  The male dancers fare significantly better, though their waistcoat and ties can, at times, succumb to the same oversize, glow-in-the-dark designs that afflict their female peers.

After an intro of each of the subjects, with some beautifully composed shots of the kids practicing and talking about what dancing means to them and cuts to the parents, most whom seem genuinely bewildered that their offspring have picked up this costly obsession that pays nothing (there are no money prizes at the competitions, just the trophies and the glory of being chosen the best) and yet demands expensive costumes, shoes, wigs (for the girls), lessons, travel, and occasionally physiotherapy.  There are no obnoxious stage Moms or pageant Dads in this film, but you can’t miss the intensity of the parents (and the teachers) as they watch their young charges compete.  At one point, while Julia O’Rourke dances on stage, her mother and two dance instructors from New York are in the audience, silently bobbing up and down in their seats as they mimic Julia’s routine.

The final 20 minutes or so of the film – shot at the championship competition in Glasgow last year – is when the drama, as one would expect, builds.  There are various rounds that each must perform, and during the softer, almost balletic moves, Bourne has chosen to use a lovely piece of music by renowned composer Patrick Doyle to accompany the footwork.  The percussive stamp and pound of the hard shoe dancing is thoroughly infectious.  You may not feel confident enough to stand up and mimic the dancers’ moves, but you’ll have a hard time not tapping a foot along with the beats.

My only small complaint is about what comes at the end, as the tension is at its peak, when the kids are watching their scores and those of their competitors appear on a huge electronic board (while we hear the figures being announced): unless you’re following the profiled dancers’ numbers pinned to their costumes, and if you don’t know about the scoring process, you may, like I did, experience a momentary confusion and not know what was happening or who was winning, with your only cue the tears of sadness or joy of the competitors we’ve been following.

At the very end, when we learn if Brogan or Julia has won, there’s a seemingly genuine moment of grace and good sportsmanship on screen that is at once surprising and touching, given how young the girls are.

See it or skip it

Oooh, see it!  The footwork and talent and rhythm are all so compelling, as are the different dancers’ stories and the sense that Irish dance is saving at least some of them from a darker future (for the Russian girls, it gives them joy and the gift of flight, albeit fleeting, and for Sandun in Holland, it’s been a life preserver of sorts, that has helped him avoid darker paths with which he seems to have struggled).  And the scenes of the dancing, be it during rehearsals or the competition, are exhilarating.

The film opens today in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Toronto.  For tonight only (Friday, June 17th), if you’re in NY and go to see the film at the Quad cinemas, director Sue Bourne will be in attendance for a Q&A after each screening, as well as young Julia O’Rourke and Joe Bitter (who are featured in the film) and Jean Butler, the red-haired Long Island dancer who was the female face of Riverdance and Michael Flatley’s dance partner.

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