If you read most newspapers you’ll get the impression that the young people of Great Britain are seriously off the rails. Jig is a documentary that gives a glimpse at disparate group of young people who submit themselves to a life of steely discipline, willing self-sacrifice and limitless dedication. They are Irish dancers.
Directed by Scot, Sue Bourne, Jig follows the trails and tribulations of some young dancers as they prepare for the World Irish Dance Championships. The contestants are not all from the UK, they come from as far afield as the USA, Holland and even Russia, but they are all united by a love of the jig and a burning desire to be recognised as the top of their field. Luckily for us, although they might all share a love of dancing, but they each have very different personalities and stories.
The film focuses on nine dancers, including youngsters like five-year-old cutie-pie John from Birmingham and in the same age bracket, Julia O’Rourke who lives in the USA. Sixteen-year-old Joe is a Californian Irish dance prodigy whose parents have relocated to rainy old Brum (“we are a little mad,” says his mother) so that he can study with one of the best dancers and teachers in the world, John Carey. The oldest age-group are the 19 to 20-year-olds.
All the dancers are sympathetic but some of their stories are really fascinating. Born in Sri Lanka, Sandoon has been brought up by white adoptive parents in Holland. For him, dancing allows him to “step into another world” and forget his troubles. Little John likes the rhythm (“and the shoes”) and dances in his football shorts, despite liking dancing 8/10 and football only 2/10. Most of the male dancers, including John, have learned to pretend footie is their first love or they’ll be teased for being ‘gay’. Although his parents have no Irish heritage, they can see the good it does their son.
Few of them would be dancing without the involvement of their parents. The mums and dads tell another side of the story, sometimes initially bemused by it, they all become as deeply involved as their children. As well as being sucked into the passion and excitement of competitive dancing, the parents also become financial servants of the large financial burden of transporting their offspring to competitions in spangly, and costly, outfits. Bourne draws a powerful picture of parental love.
Back in the 1990s, the popularity of Riverdance, Lord of the Dance and Michael Flatley, gave Irish dance a high profile, but more recently it seems to have slipped out of the limelight. Bourne reveals that competitive Irish dance is a something closed world. Certainly the World Championships don’t receive much media attention, and most of the dancers don’t seem to be after global fame and untold wealth. Prize money isn’t mentioned, but we see no sponsors banners and the overall feel is of a family event – cash-money is not key. As someone says, “You don’t last with this unless you love it.”
The film culminates with the World Championships, universally referred to as ‘the worlds’, an event of nail-biting tension (toe as well as finger nails). The work of a whole year must be demonstrated in three six-minute dances. The results are hard to predict, as personal taste plays an important part in forming the judges decisions. It is perhaps at this point that the film makes a momentary stumble: we don’t need to go through all the results in real time to get an feel for the sickening wait for places.
Although the female contestants have to dance in sparkly dresses – and rather ludicrous curly wigs – the film avoids making fun of this. It is all the better for it, its insights into the world of Irish dancers and their families is very respectful. Even if it is difficult to know when the dancers are dancing well, we certainly get an idea of the joy of the dance. Thankfully, although Jig is structured around ‘the Worlds’, we’re never allowed to forget that the pure satisfaction of dancing lies at the heart of this. One of the Russian contestants remarks that, “only Irish dancing allows you to fly, really to fly” and by the end we believe them.
The DVD release also contains an audio commentary by director Sue Bourne and dance teacher/maestro John Carey, a short documentary The Dziak Story – a Chicago family’s journey to the World Championships, a documentary on the remarkable dresses featuring Gavin Doherty and the Theatrical Trailer.