Jig (Screen Media Films, NR)

The young dancers featured are well chosen and their natural charisma, as well as their dancing skill, nearly carries the film.

If you have any interest in competitive Irish dancing, you’ll certainly want to see Sue Bourne’s documentary Jig. If you don’t, it will hold considerably less appeal because, while Bourne does give you a glimpse inside this small but fervent subculture, she is mostly content to express the kind of generic sentiments that we’ve seen in many other documentaries involving young people and competition.
The first half of Jig is spent visiting competitive Irish dancers from various parts of the world—Ireland, of course, but also the United States, England, Scotland, the Netherlands, and Russia—while the second half follows their fortunes at the 40th Irish World Dancing Championship in Glasgow. The young dancers featured are well chosen and their natural charisma, as well as their dancing skill, nearly carries the film.
Brogan McKay from Northern Ireland and Julia O’Rourke from Long Island are both 10 years old and first-time competitors. John Whitehurst, also 10 years old, studies with former world champion John Carey, as does 15-year old Joe Bitter, an American and 3-time world champion whose family moved to England to further his career. Sandun Verschoor, a young man of Sri Lankan heritage who was adopted by a Dutch couple, is one of the few non-white dancers in this subculture, and is the best male dancer in the under-17 age group in Europe. Claire Greaney from Galway, Simona Mauriello from London, and Suzanne Coyle from Glasgow, all age 19, have been competing against each other for years, and two of them have already won at least one world championship. Finally, an adult Ceilidh team from Moscow has been training for years to qualify for the world championships while also saving their money in order to be able to afford to travel to Glasgow to compete (they stay in a youth hostel while the other competitors seem to be staying in hotels).
The competition itself is a high-stakes endeavor in which the dancers perform a set routine before a panel of judges who score them on a 100-point scale. There are no cash prizes, merely the honor of winning as well as the satisfaction of doing your best, but there’s no denying that many of the competitors feel intense pressure and some are not up to the strain. Like many subcultures, this one may seem bizarre to outsiders, but you can’t fault the results. The dancers are all extremely fit and disciplined, and you can’t help but feel that they will be able to apply the same type of focus to whatever they choose to do in their adult lives.
I wish Bourne had spent more time explaining what is specific about Irish dance: How are the competition routines choreographed, for instance? What are the different moves which go into one? and What separates average execution from the kind which wins a world championship? A little history of this type of dancing would also be appreciated: Why do the dancers hold their arms at their sides? Why do the costumes (which can cost thousands of dollars) seem to be composed primarily of sequins? and Why are the girls been required to perform in ridiculous Shirley Temple wigs? (On the latter score, the boys seen to get away with a daub of hair gel, which among other things must save their parents quite a bit of money.) When you add in the fake tans and heavy makeup that the girls wear, it’s hard not to think of JonBenet Ramsay, a thought which can only be a distraction from their obvious mastery of a very difficult type of dance.
My other chief disappointment with this film is that, for all the amazing dancing going on, we don’t get to see much of it. Even at the championships, Bourne only shows little snippets of most performances, and even then seldom shows us the full figure of the dancer for any length of time, making it difficult to really appreciate their performances. I call this the Chicago effect: There seems to be an assumption among some directors that movie audiences won’t sit still to watch dancing unless it is cut into tiny segments, music video-style. | Sarah Boslaugh

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