One weekend I went shopping at a mall in downtown Boston—and was transported into another culture. A hotel, connected to the mall, was hosting an Irish dancing competition (or “feis”). My friend turned to me and asked, “Wait, is this a child beauty pageant, or something else?” With the bobbing heads full of Shirley Temple-like artificial curls, the tanned legs, the glitzy, flouncy dresses (that can cost around $2500), the make-up, and the anxious mothers and daughters, you’d be excused for thinking you might be at a child beauty pageant (And, indeed, I think the events might be distant cousins for historical and sociological reasons—but more on that another time. In the meantime, it's interesting to think how appearances in Irish dancing compare to the appearance of young, Irish Traveller girls). But you’d be wrong. Jig, a 2010 feature documentary just released to DVD, focuses on nine contestants competing at the 40th Irish Dancing World Championships, held in Glasgow, Scotland. The film shows the extraordinary hard work, practice, and athletic ability (including a serious cardio workout) that goes into creating a “foot perfect” contestant. All contestants have already qualified for the Worlds and are in the final preparations for the big event. Jig concludes with the award ceremony in Glasgow. Interspersed throughout are interviews with the dancers, their parents, and their teachers.
The stars of the film are its youngest contestants, three ten-year-olds. Brogan from Northern Ireland is an especially well spoken, clever, and engaging young lady. Her main rival, Julia O’Rourke from Long Island, is a serious competitor. Julia’s family (including her Filipino mother and Irish father who had never participated in Irish dancing before) invests in private lessons (aka “privates”) and physical therapy sessions to help give her an edge. John, from Birmingham, England, is immensely talented and sweet, if a bit forgetful—a real-life version of Billy Elliott.
I had a harder time engaging with the three nineteen-year-old female contestants, and keeping them straight. Two teenage boys have interesting back stories (one boy grew up in California, but his parents moved to England to help him train as a dancer, with his father giving up a medical practice; the other is from the Netherlands, adopted by a Dutch family from Sri Lanka), but less interesting onscreen personas. And the team of older Russian women were also hard to keep straight, especially because their story arc is fairly short in the film.
Not surprisingly Jig has been compared to two of my favorite documentaries of all time—Spellbound (about the National Spelling Bee featuring middle schoolers from the US and Canada) and Mad Hot Ballroom (featuring elementary school kids from across New York City participatingin a city-wide ballroom competition). While I really enjoyed Jig, it doesn’t reach the level of these other two films for me for two reasons. The first is that many of the children draw you into their lives in Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom. When I saw the latter in the theater my fellow audience members and I cheered aloud together by the end of the film. Partly due to the presence of so many characters in Jig, I felt this was harder to do. Then again, I loved that the featured dancers really showed how international competitive Irish dancing is, so it is a difficult trade-off.
The second way in which I found it more difficult to relate to Jig is that it is simply harder to understand competitive Irish dance. We know from Riverdance that the upper body is usually stationary. But I didn’t understand why the face was often blank while dancing. And I certainly didn’t understand the intricacy of the footwork, and differences between hard and soft shoe style. Even as someone who follows dance (and cheer, and gymnastics, and figure skating…), I couldn’t quite discern why some dancers were so far superior to others, even when they danced side-by-side (as they do in rhythmic gymnastics, for example). I was certainly impressed by their skills, but with a bit more explanation of the technique I could have been blown away.
That said, the film highlighted many similarities between Irish dancing and other forms of competitive dance. For example, as in Dance Moms, we saw teachers who yell, kids who give up aspects of their social lives (like missing birthday parties), and young dancers struggling with injuries. You also see and hear about the ways in which family members invest in this activity, both financially and by making costumes.
More serious issues that affect many other competitive activities also came up—like judge tampering. Another similarity across different competitive activities includes the language of getting drawn in by the competitive experience itself (Julia O’Rourke’s parents astutely commented that when they started they couldn’t understand why a family would drive to Connecticut to compete, but now they fly to foreign countries).
What I truly enjoyed about Jig is that it highlighted some important and powerful differences too. Again, this is a very international activity, which was nice to see. You also actually have to qualify for the Worlds (unlike many “Nationals” in the US, which for most activities are pay-to-play) and the Worlds appear to be quite a big deal. Over several days you get about six minutes on stage dancing among 6000 other competitors and in front of 20-30,000 spectators who cycle through. Finally, I loved the use of live music during the competitions, which is not common at all at dance competitions (even ballet competitions), or gymnastics, figure skating, or synchronized swimming events.
The end of Jig is a real highlight. You can feel the tension in the room as scores are announced and revealed on a screen. It was amusing to see the kids, parents, and teachers hold their heads in anxiety waiting to see the final scores—I kept shouting at the screen that all they had to do was add! I’m sure nerves played a role, but I know I would just bring a calculator or use an Excel spreadsheet to add up the scores quickly. I guess that’s the social scientist in me… I also took particular delight that the top prize included a mirror-ball trophy. Maybe that is where they get the inspiration from on Dancing with the Stars?!
All in all, Jig is a delightful and objective portrayal of an impressive, but little understood competitive activity. I hope this brings some deserved attention to Irish dancing, especially in the United States, and that we continue to receive updates on its stars (Note: Jig’s IMDb page has results from the 2011 World Championships for those spotlighted in the film). But you won't be seeing them on Toddlers & Tiaras anytime soon.