Jig

Irish dancing hopefuls from New York to Russia compete for a trophy and make for an engaging documentary

For this writer, Irish dancing holds about as much appeal as football or wine tasting. But the new documentary Jig proves that the people involved can be fascinating.

Sue Bourne’s film tells the remarkable story of an assortment of dancing hopefuls, their families, their teachers and their efforts to win a coveted prize at the 40th Irish Dancing World Championships, held last March in Glasgow.

The dancers come from all corners of the globe. Derry girl, Brogan McCay and New Yorker, Julia O’Rourke are transatlantic rivals, with O'Rourke studying McCay's moves on YouTube, while McCay practices in the Derry drizzle. She’s a charming wee thing, is McCay, dispensing pearls of wisdom from her poster-adorned bedroom.

Across the pond, O'Rourke’s parents – Filipino American mother, Irish American father – throw their wages at their daughter, but thankfully it’s the closest we come to 'stage mom' syndrome throughout the movie.

In Chelmsford, Glasgow, Galway and, er, Moscow, more competitors prepare for a pop at the various titles. They’re mostly under 20, but are mature beyond their years. They aren’t interested in money or fame, or consumed by bitchiness, but simply dedicated to their craft, and passionate about it.

In this age of ASBOs and instant gratification, it’s heartening to see kids prepared to work their socks off year after year for the reward of just a few minutes onstage and a trophy. Especially notable are the downtrodden Russian competitors, who as well as the cultural incongruities have to endure visa rejections and a cramped Glasgow youth hostel.

Meanwhile, in Birmingham, 10-year-old John, the youngest of five brothers, rates Irish dancing as ‘10 out of 10’, and football ‘two out of 10’. Clutching his favourite teddy bear, he explains how he ignores the bullies at school – though he probably doesn’t do himself any favours when he announces proudly about his dancing footwear, ‘I like the shoes.’

But the most unlikely competitor is perhaps Sandun Verschoor, an adopted Sri Lankan living in Rotterdam, whose struggle with the teenage temptations of drugs and alcohol forms a backdrop to his championship efforts.

There’s no contextual matter – we don’t learn anything about the history of Irish dancing, for instance – so the film remains solely about the characters involved. As we reach the nail-biting climax, it’s impossible to know which of these likeable youngsters to root for.

Irish dancing seems to be a hugely subjective art form, with a lot of it coming down to the judges’ personal tastes. To make matters worse, the scoring system is so fiddly even the coaches often can’t tell who is in the lead.

As for those coaches, they range from Derry’s Rosetta McConomy, who makes Sue Sylvester in Glee seem like a pussycat, to the David Walliams look-alike John Carey, from Brum. ‘Either do it right or don’t do it at all,’ McConomy barks at her young charges, while the less abrasive Carey offers his thoughtful insights into the balance between natural talent and hard graft.

Jig is a joyous affair, far more engaging than The X Factor or indeed most modern Hollywood flicks. The only problem with the film is the costumes the contestants are made to wear for the final. Resembling miniature versions of Blackadder’s Prince Regent, the kids’ wigs, make-up and elaborate dresses seem to have been designed by Gary Glitter. But the sour taste isn’t enough to spoil this delightful and surprisingly captivating tale.

Jig is showing at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast, from May 20 to June 2.

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