How It’s New York:  Wee Julia O’Rourke, who won the World Championship for her age group last year, is from Long Island.  Her teacher Lisa Petri runs the Petri School of Dance with her sister, and is half Irish, half Italian, which makes her 100% New York.  The film opens in NY June 17 at the Quad Cinema,
and in NY, LA, Boston, Chicago and Toronto. 
Check out where it is in your city here.
How It’s Irish: The art form itself, of course, is Irish! Julia’s main competition is little Brogan McKay from Derry, who can, as Sue put it, “talk for Ireland.”  (those are the two girls in the movie poster to your right) And naturally there are other Irish competitors– as well as dancers from Holland and Russia.

Scottish director Sue Bourne’s documentary JIG makes Irish dance as impressive as sport

Is there more to Irish dance than all this tippety-tippety tap?– Neil Genzlinger of the New York Times

Neil made that comment to me when we were both at the press screening of Michael Flatley’s 3-D Lord of the Dance.  The short answer?  No.  and YES.   You can’t help but feel inspired watching the motley group of dancers get themselves ready for the 40th Irish Dancing World Championships held in Glasgow in 2010. 

Riverdance has a lot to answer for!  More than one dancer in the movie cited it as their inspiration for taking up the sport.  Sport?  Hard to see it as a hobby when you see the way coaches talk (up!  up!  get those legs up!) and learn how long and hard the dancers train– two or three hours a day.  Californian teenager Joe Bitter’s family uprooted the household to England so Joe could train with a top coach.  Substitute “gymnastics” or “ice skating” for Irish Dance, and it’s not unusual at all.  People do move around sometimes for ballet, and music, but you hear about it less.  Possibly they are less competitive at a young age?  I’m a survivor of music camp and youth orchestra and the Irish Dance world beats that.  When you hear Julia talk about keeping pace with Brogan by watching her on Youtube, it just doesn’t call to mind art for its own sake.  BUT,  you don’t get the sense either that people secretly wish to kneecap one another.
stage parents?  nope– as Sue told me when I interviewed her (listen for Sue, Julia and Joe on this week’s podcast!), what she discovered was more “bemused parents.”  Again, look to Riverdance.  Where a year or three of Irish dance is common for families interested in Irish heritage (heck, Liz Carroll was a dancer at a young age, she confessed last summer during her talk at Catskills Irish Arts Week, a fact even Joanie Madden, her former Cherish the Ladies bandmate, didn’t know), many of the dancers profiled in the film didn’t come to it that way at all.  Joe cited Riverdance as his inspiration. After he won 17 contests in a row, his family realized he was pretty good at this thing.  Riverdance is what inspired the adult Russian Ceili dancers.   Julia’s father is Irish-American, but had no connection with dance.  Her call to the form was seeing another little girl dance a jig in kindergarten.  She was very shy, and nobody knew until she danced in competition how much she would blossom under stage lights.

Obviously the dance has some magic in it that hits these competitors hard and sucks them in.  The movie doesn’t entirely show us what that is, but simply seeing it there makes the film fascinating.  And then, there are those flying feet.

(Trailer after the jump!)

The dancers devote hours and hours to the precision of it.  Unlike tap dancers, they generally don’t cross-train (too bad; Mary Kate Sheehan was cut in Las Vegas for So You Think You Can Dance.  I’m recapping that show for Speakeasy at the Wall Street Journal these days, by the way) so it’s not a love of dance in general.  I don’t quite get it but I see that it’s there (I’m quite sure that even had Riverdance existed when I was four I would have rather read a book.  I would rather read a book than most things, though).  But the film completely captivates and fascinates because of that mystery and drive.  It’s the first time a film has been allowed inside the Irish Dance world, and Bourne had to struggle to get that approval.  Going inside a hidden world was partly what attracted her– she had no background in dance herself.

There’s no money in the titles, and the layout in costumes and wigs can be high (again, it’s more like ice skating than ballet in this respect, although at least in skating they don’t have to deal with fake tans and heavy curly wigs.  Personally, I find the garish costumes and wigs distracting.  One parent remarked when they first went to a competition she thought they were at a Shirley Temple convention).  Asked what she liked least, Julia replied “the wigs”– they are itchy and the bobby pins hurt.  But she loves the soft shoe dances where she feels like she’s flying.  Joe Bitter is drawn to the rhythm.

Little John Whitehurst from Birmingham, also 10, has natural talent that, when he’s on, says his teacher John Carey, makes him unbeatable.  But these days the dance is so popular that people work very hard even without that natural talent, and can beat him.  When you see John move, it’s clear what he means– he has a natural oomph, exuberance, lift that makes him a joy to watch.  And you just want to eat Brogan up with a spoon– she’s remarkably articulate, poised and sweet-natured.    The film works best in the lead-up to the competition, as we look inside the lives of the competitors, including Sandun Verschoor, a Sri Lankan boy adopted into a Dutch family.  And there are the older girls competing– lovely Claire Greaney from Galway, Simona Mauriello from London, and Suzanne Coyle from Glasgow.  They’ve been trading titles back and forth for years, but Simona has never won the World’s.

The families of the dancers and the shots of the schools are jaw-droppingly  compelling.   It’s a bit less so when we actually get to the competition.  Long scenes of  scores being given out don’t tell us much except that it’s tense for the competitors doing the math in their heads. Bourne deliberately stayed away from the judges, so we really don’t know how or what the criteria is, ecept that we’re told it’s somewhat subjective.  Unfortunately, that’s not enough for those of us who have nothing to go on in terms of what they are looking for (in this respect, it’s most UNlike a sport– you expect to hear an announcer commenting on the triple lutz, or form on the whatever amazing tippety thing Joe Bitter just did).  Because there are so many charcters in play, some titles would help us keep them all straight.  Joe Bitter’s feet are amazing, but during his set I also wished I could see the rest of him.  Keeping the body straight and yet loose while the feet move is what makes the dance seem so effortless.

And a little background on the form would be very helpful, as would more information on the teachers.  What is this mystery that sucks the dancers in?  Still,  JIG offers a glimpse at the clearly international appeal of this beautiful, odd, exhilerating art form, and is not to be missed.

Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.