As an Irish American who had a very culturally rich childhood, I may be something of an anomaly in that I never once tried Irish step dancing. I never raised a foot to a jig or a reel, never donned a massive curly wig, never learned how to jump two feet in the air while keeping my arms perfectly still.
With the release of Scottish filmmaker Sue Bourne’s new documentary, Jig, however, I now have a vivid idea of what is might have been like. Or, at least, what it might have been like to be one of the 3,000 young competitive dancers dedicated and skilled enough to make it to the World Irish Dance Championships.
Jig revolves around the 2010 World Championships – “World’s,” as they are popularly known – in Glasgow, Scotland. Bourne narrows in on the stories of nine dancers, ranging in age from 10 to 19, and coming from some expected places like Ireland and the U.S., but others as far-flung as Russia and the Netherlands by way of Sri Lanka.
There’s young John Whitehurst from Birmingham, U.K., portrayed as the "Billy Elliot" among his sports-loving brothers. Also among the ten-year-olds dancing at World’s for the very first time are Brogan McCay from Derry, Northern Ireland and Julia O’Rourke from Long Island, New York. They are each other’s biggest competition, but the way they act will teach any viewer a thing or two about maturity and grace. Glimpses of their future can be seen in the story of Claire Greaney from Galway, Londoner Simona Mauriello, and Glasgow native Suzanne Coyle, three girls from the 19-20 age group, who have been competing against each other for years.
Then, of course, there are the parents – some supportive, some bemused, some even more fiercely competitive than their children.
Bourne readily admits that she went into this “not knowing anything about Irish dance.” Consequently, Jig isn’t presented from the point of view of a seasoned insider, but from the perspective of somebody exploring and trying to understand this intense, singular world. Bourne has made a film that respects its subjects more than it seeks to expose them. Some may take issue with the fairly objective angle Jig takes in place of a more critical one, but it makes sense considering the hoops Bourne had to go through in order to make the documentary at all. When we spoke during a press day for Jig, she explained that “An Comisiun [the World’s sponsor] had never let anyone in before…To be honest I think they are a bit wary of outsiders coming in, criticizing them about the wigs, the makeup, the tan, so it’s easier for them to just keep the outside world out.”
Luckily for Bourne, though, her request to make the film coincided with the 40th anniversary of the World Championships and a change in attitude spurred on by the success of Riverdance and Lord of the Dance.
Bourne had to present her proposal before eighty committee members of An Comisiun, and was eventually given the go-ahead to make Jig. With all the secrecy and hesitation, one can’t help but wonder whether the committee ever tried to steer her from or towards certain aspects of World’s.
“Not at all,” Bourne said adamantly. After initial negotiations over editorial control, they were “fantastic, they didn’t interfere in any way, shape or form.”
For the dancers, Jig finally brings some wider attention to what they do. Joe Bitter, a California native whose father gave up a doctor’s practice and moved to the U.K. just so that Joe could study with one of the best Irish dance instructors, is now something of a celebrity within the close-knit community – known for his remarkable footwork and his tendency to win. Still, it was nice, he said, to be able to give people outside the world of Irish dance a taste of what it’s all about. “You spend so much of your time just practicing all day every day, every week, non stop, so it’s nice to show finally what you can do. You have to have the right mix of everything, like talent, work ethic, dedication, to be able to do this, and it’s all worth it in the end – that’s proved with Jig.”
Eleven-year-old Julia O’Rourke remarked that she now feels like her friends and classmates will start to look at Irish dance the way she does – as a sport.
“Irish dancing is definitely not one of the most popular sports in the world and Jig gives a chance for other people to see how Irish dancing is just like any other sport and how much work and dedication is put into it,” she told me, feet tapping quietly the entire time.
Visit www.jig-the-film.us to pre-order a DVD or request a Jig screening in your town.