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Director Sue Bourne has crafted a magical tale to appeal to young and old in Jig.

The strange but wonderful world of Irish competitive dancing is explored in 'Jig'

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Director Sue Bourne has crafted a magical tale to appeal to young and old in Jig.

In Jig, director Sue Bourne’s magical new film about the mysterious world of competitive Irish dancing, culture and tradition come to life in a way that will have you cheering in the aisles. The film follows nine dancers as they prepare to compete in the Irish Dancing World Championship, as the rivalry between them reaches a nail-biting climax. CAHIR O’DOHERTY meets the director behind the spellbinding new film.

Get ready to catch the biggest thing to hit Irish dancing since the days when Riverdance shook up the world in 1994. Jig, the nail bitingly intense new film about the recent World Irish Dance Championships in Glasgow, is an utterly magical portrait of that that mysterious world.

To begin with, director Sue Bourne has pulled off a feat that no one else in the history of the competition has ever managed -- she somehow persuaded the controlling body of the Glasgow Irish Dancing World Championships to allow an outsider to film the inner workings of this fiercely competitive world for the first time.

Getting access not just to the competition but also backstage and deep into the personal lives of her young subjects, Bourne takes us into their Harry Potter-like alternative universe of training, sacrifice, dedication and passion, and it’s impossible not to be swept up by the heady mix.

The competitors are of all ages and come from the United States, Holland, England, Ireland, Scotland and even Russia. We watch as the rivalry between them escalates until the film reaches its nail-biting climax. You are certain to pick your own favorites from the lineup, and you will literally have your heart in your mouth when the competitions come down to the wire.

“It’s like a Shirley Temple convention,” deadpans the mother of 10-year-old Irish dance prodigy John Whitehurst, speaking for all of us, as she eyes up the bizarre wigs and day glow costumes of competitive Irish dancing for the first time in all their glory.

Whitehurst, like her son, is an Englishwoman from Birmingham, and the world of Irish dancing is as exotic to her (to begin with) as the caliphs of Baghdad. All of John’s older brothers play football, but since he saw and was completely hypnotized by Riverdance, John Irish dances.

A working class kid from a council estate who gets teased for his passion, the Billy Elliott set-up is real and unavoidable, and you’ll quickly find yourself rooting for him and every other young dancer in Bourne’s marvelous new film.

In slow motion we watch the girls cautiously eye their competitors -- and their competitors’ winning dance steps, of course -- as the wigs, curls, garish makeup and diamond encrusted shoes flash by.

Then as the competition really heats up, you see the delight of the dancers selected for callbacks and the tears of those passed over. It’s a tough sport this, and in moments like this you can see who’s really putting their heart and soul into it.

“What happened was a journalist in Scotland approached me and she said the world championships were being held in Glasgow,” Jig director Bourne tells the Irish Voice. “Then I discovered that no one else had gotten in before, they wouldn’t even let you take a photograph, and this world that I knew nothing about was completely fascinating. ”

Bourne was called to Dublin where she had to put her case for filming to 100 members of the Irish Dancing Commission. There she had to outline what she planned to do, how she was going to do it, and she had to answer their questions before they took a vote.

“The more you discover that no one else has gotten in before, the more exciting the prospect becomes because that means you’ll be the first, if you pull it off,” Bourne says.

To protect the choreography of the steps, Bourne was told, in the past photographers and filmmakers had not been allowed for fear they would copy what they saw. But the sport had also come in for a fair bit of criticism about the wigs, the makeup and the expensive dresses, and they were sensitive about that too.

There was a feeling, Bourne says, that it was fine to leave the outside world out of the picture where they couldn’t criticize.

“But a lot of them had seen my films and were reassured by that,” says Bourne. “They’re very honest films and they don’t take cheap shots. And the huge impact of Michael Flatley and Riverdance was beginning to wane, and they weren’t attracting new people in the same way that they had.”

Jig is certain to make Irish dancing attractive again to a new generation of young talent. We’re all wearily familiar of the idea of pushy parents forcing their reluctant kids to compete. But as Jig makes clear, it’s the sheer passion and delight of the kids themselves that really makes for a world champion.

“Some parents might be living vicariously through their kids, but they can only do that if the kids want to do it,” says Bourne.

“The old cliché of the pushy parents fell away and I saw the human stories behind them. It became about families and parents and childhood and growing up, and I think those kids are incredible.”

There’s no question that, for its challenges, Irish dancing is doing well at the moment – 6,000 competitors came to compete in Glasgow, attracting 30,000 spectators. Everything culminates in three 35-second performances, with only 50 people getting called to the last round. So in effect all these kids are practicing all year round for six minutes of dancing.  

Two formidable sisters from Derry who teach Irish dancing and who have produced the 10-year-old world champion Brogan McCay find themselves in direct competition with two formidable sisters from New Jersey and their prodigy student Julia O’Rourke who is after Brogan’s crown. It’s a brilliant set up that Bourne could not have asked for.

But the boy she calls Little John Whitehurst, now the reigning world champion in his age group, captivated her for the unlikelihood of his own tale.

“All Little John wanted to do was dance. He didn’t know why he wanted to dance. He told me it was because he liked the shoes,” recalls Bourne.

“He even took those shoes to bed with him. This family hasn’t an ounce of Irish blood in them. But this wee boy wanted to dance, which led to enormous sacrifices on the part of the parents, and now he’s the world champion.”

All of these dancers perform for nothing. No money is awarded, there’s no real public status or recognition, and they just do it because they love it.

That’s interesting, Bourne says. Irish dancing casts a spell over these kids and they are just enthralled by it.

And it’s a worldwide phenomenon. Russian kids do it, so do Dutch kids, so do Americans, anywhere you can throw a dart on a map.

“I’ve made lots and lots of successful films for television. It’s very rare that you come across a feature and think this could be a feature, this could go into cinemas and people would want to go and see it,” says Bourne.

“Not least because it has an enormous global audience. People from all around the world, for the weirdest backgrounds, are pulled into this hidden world and it transforms them.”
Jig opens in select cities on June 17.

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