Review of “Jig” by Sue Bourne

Remember the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest that truly brought Irish dancing into the international spotlight with the seven-minute interval performance of Riverdance, making stars of Michael Flatley and Jean Butler and, at the same time, the whole world aware of Irish dancing? – Yes? – No? Well, in the backstage of all that glamour of podiums and spotlights exists an entirely other dimension: that of competitive Irish dancing in which trainings are extremely intense and broken bones are common currency. And all for the meager sum of zero, even for the World Championships. Dedication and prestige are what really matters in that particular world.

And this is what Sue Bourne’s absolutely extraordinary documentary, Jig: the Great Irish Dance-Off, which premiered at the 2011 Hot Docs International Documentary Festival, exactly tries to show us. That and that Irish dancing is definitely a hop, skip and a jump – quite literally – more exciting than any other sport and/or dance out there. Jig is the story of the 40th Irish Dancing World Championships, held in March 2010 in Glasgow. Three thousand dancers, their families and teachers from all around the world come to Glasgow for a week filled with drama, tears, tension, success and failure. Indeed, heavily made up (tan included), dressed up in wigs, diamantes and dresses that cost thousands of pounds, they compete for twenty-two yearned for world titles. They spent incredible amounts of money and a year of unbelievably hard work for only a few anxious minutes on stage. For the very first time, Jig was given access to the little known world of competitive Irish dancing. The spell cast by the dance and the music has worked its magic in the four corners of the world and talented people from Ireland, Holland, Britain, USA and Russia unveil a world of dedication, hard work, passion and obsession and are pushed to their limits while seeking perfection.

As a matter of fact, the keyword is “World” and not only in the sense that Irish dancing encompasses an entirely different world but also in the sense that this precise world exists everywhere on Earth. Indeed, the documentary introduces us to two ten-year-old girls, Brogan McKay and Julia O’Rourke, from Ireland and USA respectively, who are immediately presented as two rivals coming from two different backgrounds and parts of the world. Brogan is sweet and she is competing for her dead grandmother while Julia is rich and almost robotic. There is also John Whitehurst, referred to as the “Billy Elliott of Irish Dancing” (in the press kit), who is a talented little stepper who dances to overcome bullying at school and his idol, Joe Bitter, a gifted American whose passion for Irish dancing led him and his family to move from the West Coast’s sunshine and comfy life to the rainy and grey England. They are both taught by John Carey, former top dancer and eight-time “Worlds” winner. Suzanne Coyle, four-time winner of the World Championship is determined to win back her title from longtime rival and friend Claire Greaney, while their other rival friend, Simona Mauriello, who has won everything except for the World title has also her eyes set on the trophy. We are also introduced to Ana Kondr, a member of a Russian female troupe coached by Shane MacAvinchey, and Sandun, the “Flying Dutchman”, a Sri Lankan teenager adopted by Dutch parents who lives in Rotterdam.

Ultimately, Jig is not about the Irish dancing World Championships so much as it is really about obsession. In fact, as we have mentioned above, the documentary shows these kids and their worn-out progenitors from all over the world (with varying levels of that obsession, talent and household income) who had dedicated immense amounts of time, energy and money and sacrificed a lot in order to follow a dream. This is something I know and understand all too well. But, Jig gets you hooked because, in spite of all their beauty pageant looks, no one felt the need to apologize for Irish dancing and no one bothered to explain their passion. In fact, none of them felt they were doing anything abnormal. And you either got that or you didn’t. And if you did, this documentary is a helluva hop, skip and a jump! And so, welcome to their world, a world where only their rules apply…

Even if they never reveal how any of them, many of whom have no Irish connection whatsoever, became so passionate about it, we do learn from Jig that Irish dancing requires real dedication: on the one hand, we have the frustrating “Get it right or don’t bother” attitude during the trainings, with an abundance of shouting and very few yet very precious words of praise. Fortunately enough, this approach doesn’t discomfit Brogan McKay, ever so desirous to please both her coach Rosetta and her parents, who spend every spare dime into her dancing. On the other hand, eight-time World Champion John Carey opts for a more easygoing coaching style. The documentary also hints that Joe Bitter could be the next Michael Flatley as it is obvious that he is a champion in the making.

However, if Jig had focused only on John, Joe, Brogan and Julie on their path towards the “Worlds”, the film would have perhaps been more concise and less out of focus. But, by including international contestants who are not really expected to win, such as the group of dancers from Russia and Sandun – who is competing against Joe –, it gives Jig the international dimension of this entirely parallel world, of this widely spread Celtic magic. Also, obviously enough, the film sticks to the all too predictable format of introducing contestants, telling their stories, then seeing how it all plays out. Ignoring the Irish dancing’s fascinating history as well as the indubitable influence of Michael Flatley, Sue Bourne lets the dancers speak and dance for themselves, many questions thus remaining unanswered such as the Shirley Temple wigs or the complex posture. Moreover, we are not offered any explanations as to what the judges are looking for at the competition.

Nevertheless, with a score written by the Academy Award nominated composer, Patrick Doyle, Jig is also beautifully photographed. But Borne uses a highly intrusive editing technique for the grand finale, shortening and cutting the performances when she’s not focusing solely on the mesmerizingly fast-paced feet. For instance, we are left wanting to see in its entirety the outstanding and demanding routine John Carey had prepared for Joe and which won him first place.

Fans of Celtic dance and music have and will most certainly rejoice. But for those of you who absolutely no nothing about Irish dancing, Jig provides a truly fascinating glimpse into a world few people get to see first-hand and leaves you with great admiration for the sacrifices made by the dancers, parents and teachers. It would also appear that Jig inspired another documentary about Irish dancing and the World Championship, this time made by the US TV network TLC and follows five American Irish dancers, including Julia O’Rourke who returns to reclaim her title two years later and Michael Flatley’s niece, Marina Flatley-Griffin, whom she competes against. It seems more and more people are secretly falling under the spell of Irish dancing. I know I have already fallen. So, jump, two, three I go…


Production: BBC Scotland, Creative Scotland, Head Gear Films (UK 2011). Executive producers: Grant McKee, Ewan Angus, Sam Anthony, Carole Sheridan, Leslie Finlay, Phil Hunt and Compton Ross. Producer: Sue Bourne. Director: Sue Bourne. Photography: Joe Russell. Music: Patrick Doyle. Editing: Colin Monie.

Cast: Brogan
McKay (herself), Julia O’ Rourke (herself), John
Whitehurst (himself), Joe
Bitter (himself), Sandun
Verschoor (himself), Ana
the Ceili
team (themselves), Simona
Mauriello (herself), Claire
Greaney (herself), Suzanne
Coyle (herself)

Color – 99 min. Premiere: 1-V-2011 (Hot Docs International Documentary Festival)

Tara Karajica

Tara Karajica is a Belgrade-based film critic and journalist. Her writings have appeared in "Indiewire," "Screen International," "Variety," "Little White Lies" and "Film New Europe," among many other media outlets, including the European Film Academy’s online magazine, "Close-up" and Eurimages. She is a member of the European Film Academy, the Online Film Critics Society and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists as well as the recipient of the 2014 Best Critic Award at the Altcine Action! Film Festival. In September 2016, she founded "Yellow Bread," a magazine dedicated entirely to short films, ranked among the 25 Top Short Film Blogs and Websites on the Planet in 2017. In February 2018, she launched "Fade to Her," a magazine about successful women working in Film and TV and in 2019, she was a member of the Jury of the European Shooting Stars (European Film Promotion). She is currently a programmer for live action shorts at PÖFF Shorts, Head of the Short Film Program and Live Action Shorts programmer at SEEFest and Narrative Features Programmer at the Durban International Film Festival. Tara is a regular at film festivals as a film critic, moderator and/or jury member.

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