It is gratifying to have a light shone on children and teens who have the drive to really apply themselves. In one moment, they are as serious as adults; in the next, their childish joy is plain, but they work harder than most adults to earn that joy. In Sue Bourne's Jig, it's shared joy, seeing those kids get their trophies, something tangible to hold and to revel in after all their hours and days.
Many documentaries still tend toward dry retelling of information, with very little human element. Jig documents in a different way. The months leading up to the 40th Irish Dancing World Championships in 2010 are intense, but nothing compared to the day of the event. This documentary is broken into three nearly distinct portions. The first bit introduces several dancers and the families who have given up everything for their dancers. The middle illustrates quite clearly just how much work and dedication goes into dance, and how many personal hurdles they each must overcome. It all builds to culminate in the final day, the day when the dancers either win or lose, when either their work pays off or they leave wondering if they will continue dancing or not.
This documentary is about humanity and emotions and the will to strive for a dream, even more inspiring when it is children giving up everything for the Irish Step Dancing that they all love. Jig crescendos from informative to the emotional intensity of an international competition.
First, a group of tiny dancers are introduced: a pair of 10-year-old girls, one in Ireland and one in New York; and a 10-year-old boy in Birmingham. A girl in London competes in the 19-21 group with her three friends, one of whom is 19 and started dancing at three. (How many people can say, at 19, that they've done anything for 16 years?) In Moscow, Russia, a woman who began dancing in her 20s explains how much work it takes to finally get the steps - half of Saturday was spent dancing, to make it worth the money invested. She, and her fellows, talk about how the dance changes them: no matter what mood they arrived in, they leave in high spirits, flying. Their dance studio focuses on the joy of the Irish Dancing.
The young gal from New York excitedly shares about practicing every single day in private lessons as competition approaches. Her mother attends practices, taking notes on what mistakes her daughter makes, for further practicing at home. The Derry girl believes strongly in no privates- it wouldn't be fair. But her classes do get tougher, as they near "World."
A boy from Sri Lanka, living with his adoptive family in Holland, strives to be among the top five in the world. He says it's like a drug - it injures your body, but it gives you a good feeling. As the only boy in his class, he has to carve out his own way. It gives him his path: dance has helped him figure out what he wants in life.
For most of them, it is life, it is their passion. They sacrifice all else for dance. Sometimes, it's a parent shoving them through their teen years. Once they reach the other side of those years, they have often found their way back to dance. One of the most telling, fascinating things to see in Jig is when the dancers, young or mature, stand on the street or in the schoolyard and their feet just move, seemingly without them being aware. Dance is a way of thinking, a way of being.
The costs are discussed often, by the parents - dresses, shoes, competitions out of state or out of country. It ends up being a time and money commitment, much like ice skating is for the niche bests. It becomes a way of life for the ones with talent and drive, and for their families. Costumes run around $2500, American. Some of the curled wigs are bigger than the little girls who don them. Even the socks sparkle, for competition. The girls are tense, heavily made up, bedazzled. Then they dance with as much passion and precision as their young bodies can muster.
The coaches are not coddling sorts. They shout, push, and envision dancers who reach to impossibly high standards. But they do get amazing results. They expect kids to attend dance classes four to five times a week. The boy from Birmingham's teacher believes that he can be the best but laments that the child forgets things, acts silly. His mother works simply to pay for her son's dance, and her first revealing question as she arrives to pick him up is, "How are your blisters?" It truly is a hard, painful world, but the kids think it all worthwhile. In one breath, the young dancer tells us that his coach is the best teacher he's ever had, in the next that he shouts a lot. Even the teacher says that he is "quite hard" on the boy; it's a tough way to grow up. Many have a laundry list of dancing injuries, but they continue to practice.
The kids - boys particularly - talk of harsh bullying, so the older ones learn not to discuss it outside of the Irish Dancing world. Even so, one of those older boys is intensely dedicated. He won the first 18 events that he entered, and that because he often spends seven hours straight practicing at home. His Californian family moves to London, to support his talent.
Just over 6000 competitors meet to dance in 35-second moments after practicing all year, for years. Their work culminates in a spot of solid, perfect dance- hopefully! One mother likens her child to a coiled spring, excited and tense. An estimated 20,000-30,000 in coaches and parents, friends and fans fill the audience. Last-minute practicing happens in the hall for some, whereas others catch a bit of rest right there on the floor. For some, high emotions are vented in tears; for others, the energy is all bottled to be spent in the dancing itself. Mothers sit in the audience, mentally counting each step.
The sheer intensity was overwhelming. There are numerous sections of the competition: hard shoes, soft shoes, groups. Each group is evaluated by different sets of 5 judges, to avoid the personal tastes of one taking over. Even the teachers are visibly wound up when it came time for their protégés to dance. Worries and hopes etch all faces - the dancers, the parents, the instructors.
"The top prize is the World, and that is what they strive for," offers one mother about the work the dancers do. "My own wee wishes in my own wee world," says the grateful girl from Derry, Ireland, on her hopes of winning World.
Reading of the scores brings a rush of emotion, both for the high scorers and the ones who miss out. While waiting, teeth are gnashed, nails chewed, hands held tightly. All of the adrenaline vents in a scant minute of numbers and ratings, in crazy high joy and devastation both.
The lack of subtitles in this film is a detraction. While accents are such a happy thing, when one tries to absorb information and personal stories, strong accents can make it difficult to catch it all. (There are no extras on the DVD format, only on the Blu-ray.)
Although it is "Irish" Step Dancing, it has swept the world. The sheer diversity brought to the floor in Glasgow proves this. Russian dancers, the Dutch, Australians, Canadians, Americans, Sri Lanka children, Brits, and, of course, both Scots and Irish comprise just part of the participants. As such, Sue Bourne's moving documentary is a study of human nature, drive, and beauty of a diverse group who strive together to win World. Jig is a 99-minute privilege to take in.
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