Mary Kay Heneghan and 2011 national Irish dance champion |
Emily Marino. Photo by Tony Rutherford.
When Irish dance reality show “The Big Jig” premiered Tuesday night on TLC, Mary Kay Heneghan was understandably nervous about what she was going to see.
Not only was the Buffalo-based Irish dance instructor hoping to see Irish dance portrayed accurately and in a positive light on the cable network known for accentuating already-quirky subcultures’ quirks, but she was hoping she’d come across OK on camera, too.
Heneghan, certified Irish dance instructor and competition adjudicator, was one of the show’s stars. In days leading up to the 2012 World Irish Dancing Championships (known as "Worlds") held in Belfast this past spring, cameras followed Heneghan and two Worlds-bound Rince na Tiarna dancers, sisters Emily and Julia Marino.
“I was a little nervous,” Heneghan admitted, joking that she’d mulled over the idea of watching the show alone in the basement with a bottle of wine. Instead, she invited over some friends, a few dancers and dance parents for an impromptu “Big Jig” viewing party, and she was pleased with the final product.
“I thought it was very well done,” Heneghan said. “No drama from kids, teachers or parents.”
But it’s not that TLC crew members didn’t try to stir the pot a little. Heneghan said that dancers were pulled aside and asked leading questions, to which they responded honestly and respectfully, without coaching from adults.
“You tell [television execs] what you’re willing to do and not willing to do, and they try to get you to do that regardless,” she explained. But her dancers and the other American dancers featured on the TLC special didn’t fall for it, as evidenced by each of the dancer’s calm, collected and mature behavior on the show.
“I do wish there was more dancing, and less drinking egg whites and talking about eyelashes,” she said with a laugh, admitting that every reality series has to include a few outrageous scenes.
But unlike shows like TLC hit “Toddlers and Tiaras,” which follows young beauty pageant contestants at competitions, Heneghan noted one major difference between the pageant scene and the competitive Irish dance world:
“These kids are talented. These kids can dance. They’re disciplined. I feel like they’re doing something rooted in history, and it’s a hard thing to do,” Heneghan said, adding that pageant kids aren’t necessarily not talented -- it’s just that pageants focus only on appearance. “You can put on the Irish dancing wig and buy the costume, but you’re not going to get past that unless you have incredible talent.”
Even though “The Big Jig” documented the most prestigious, cut-throat Irish dance competition of the year -- the Olympics of Irish dance, if you will -- it inadvertently captured an unlikely side of the sport: supporting the “enemy.”
Irish dance teachers Lisa and Karen Petri, and Gary Healy, whose dancers compete against Heneghan’s, are in no way Heneghan’s nemeses.
“Gary’s one of my best friends, so are Lisa and Karen,” she said, explaining that Healy even helped Heneghan’s dancer prepare for competition while Heneghan was in a different room watching another dancer compete at Worlds -- a scene captured on camera, but not emphasized in the show.
“We all want the best dancer to win. We just hope the dancer is our own," she said. "Of course I want to beat them, but I appreciate talent and hard work."
So, while TLC managed to squeeze a little drama from the Worlds, it wasn't quite the kind of unusual entertainment one might come to expect from reality TV -- and what a welcome change it was.
Did you watch "The Big Jig" on TLC? Let me know what you thought of the show in the comments below.