When it comes to ways of spending an hour and a half of my life, watching a group of kids and teenagers competing in an Irish dancing competition doesn’t rank too highly. Even if that competition is the fortieth Irish Dancing World Championships held in Glasgow. Even if this is the first time that the competition allowed cameras to see behind the scenes of the prestigious event that brings dancers together from all over the world, Los Angeles to Moscow. In my world, the whole Riverdance craze made absolutely zero sense to me and went on entirely too long before finally fading out like the ridiculous fad it was. Funny then that when I saw, JIG, filmmaker Sue Bourne’s documentary chronicling the lead-up and outcome of the 2010 Irish Dancing World Championships, I found myself completely riveted.
Bourne made the confident decision to not include any titles or narration in JIG – or subtitles, for that matter. And I applaud her for it. Granted, it took most of the first act to truly pull me in as she took her time having us get to know the handful of main characters – the two we attach ourselves to the most are John and Brogan, a 10-year-old boy and girl who completely embody innocence – which pays off as the rigors of a year-long, intense training regiment takes its toll on them all. I didn’t miss the narration for most of the film, but I could’ve gone for some subtitles for Brogan and her family, who were natives of Ireland and had such thick accents that it sounded like they were speaking a different language entirely. Even the broken English spoken by the Russian women who didn’t start Irish dancing until well into their 20s were easier to understand. As the film went on, though, either their accents cleared up or somehow my ear got accustomed to the Irish tongue, making it a non-issue once we got moving in the second act. But some titles would’ve helped both in the beginning so that we knew the names of all the dancers from the get-go, and later on in the end, when they were all getting their scores. It wasn’t until we’d gone through a number of competitions that it finally started to make sense how they determine the winners and losers. A narrator briefly explaining how the scores are announced along with some titles letting us know which dancer had which number (they wore those white pieces of paper with black numbers on them to keep them all distinguished) would’ve removed some of the confusion, letting us just dive into the event.
And what an event it is. Irish dancing is a bizarre endeavor and JIG lets us inside the whole world: the kids who forgo any sense of normalcy with their peers in order to practice hours and hours a day every day, the coaches who are former world champions themselves, the parents who support their children both emotionally and financially, and even the method of policing the judges to ensure quality and fairness. Bourne provides a well-rounded view of just what it takes to become one of the best Irish dancers in the world and does so without any judgement whatsoever. It’s quite simple in that respect, focusing just on these kids and their families as they train for the big competition. JIG builds to the final act, which, like in any sports film, is the big game – or in this case, the World Championships. And by the time we get there, we’re seriously rooting for these kids, especially the little boy and girl, who have such great, healthy attitudes: they just want to perform as well as they can. They’re motivated and excited, but they’re not insanely obsessed like those child beauty pageant contestants. Arguably the most compelling storyline is that of the 10-year-old John, a calm, polite kid who sleeps with stuffed toys and just loves to dance. And he’s really good, too. But, for some reason – most likely because he’s only been alive since the year 2000 – he sometimes forgets his routine or just stops as if he’s just woken up and wondered what he’s doing criss-crossing his feet rapidly in front of a mirror. Once we get to the world championships, I truly found myself nervous for him, that he’d just stop or something in the middle of his final routine. I actually laughed at myself a bit for having gotten so involved in this Irish dancing movie after expecting so little going in. A testament to Bourne’s film: it sneaks up on you.
One of the parents in the film compared the Irish dancing competition to showing horses and it seemed like an apt analogy in that they’re both extremely expensive hobbies. Just one of the girl’s dresses cost upwards of twenty-five hundred bucks. And with these kids growing as quickly as they do, they constantly need new ones to fit for their next competition. That’s not even considering the massive expense of the endless dance classes. Without getting too in depth, JIG touches on the two basic ways that families handle this financial burden: either they’re rich, or they take out multiple mortgages on their house. It’s never questioned whether or not it makes much sense for the families to be investing all of this money into an endeavor that admittedly doesn’t ever reap you any income (unless you parlay it into a teaching job, but, as you can imagine, those aren’t exactly in high demand). It’s just accepted without a critical eye that these families chose this for their children and that’s just fine. To each their own. One of the older kids, an adopted Sri Lankan teenage boy living in Ireland, even proclaimed that going to college wasn’t for him, that he was just going to put all of his energy into winning the world championships. His determination is admirable but it’s hard not to think that it’s all entirely misguided. With many other sports, these children could take their unique skills to college, perhaps even to scholarships. But Irish dancing? There’s really only one goal: winning worlds. JIG doesn’t attempt to sway the viewer into any particular moral feeling about this. It accepts them as the dancers they are, future be damned. Perhaps a different documentary could delve into what happens to these kids after their Irish dancing days are behind them and all they have to show for it is debt and a few trophies. But that’s not this movie. In the end, JIG is an inspirational, uplifting sports film more than what you’d come to expect from a traditional documentary. Which is a brilliant way to approach the material: it’s how you make Irish dancing competitions exciting for people who have zero interest whatsoever in the Riverdance.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars