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Jig Documentary Review Essay

. . . So says Derry girl Brogan McCay of her Irish dancing exploits, which are captured in Sue Bourne’s tremendously entertaining documentary Jig. Her legs haven’t stopped kicking since, TARA BRADYdiscovers

SHE’S HARDLY in the door of the family’s Derry home but Brogan McCay is already dancing around the kitchen table. The newly crowned World Champion Irish Dancer is supposed to be having a break. There are only so many front clicks a girl can manage in 48 hours. And she’s due back in class tomorrow. But the 11-year-old’s feet are not co-operating with the plan. So this is what it takes to be world champion.

“World champion, aye!” she chirps in disbelief. “My principal and the teachers and everybody are so proud of me.” And off she dances.

’Twas ever thus, says Brogan’s mum, Carole. “She can’t stand still. It’s only since we started going to competitions that we’ve realised a lot of the Irish dancers are like that. They’re always jigging about and working out wee steps in their heads. They never stop.”

Carole has no idea how she ended up with a champion in the house. Nobody in the extended clan had danced so much as a step before Brogan and her cousin Chloe signed up for Irish dancing lessons five years ago.

“There’s nothing in my family and nothing in my husband’s family to indicate it,” says Carole. “Mammy sent us to everything when we were smaller. We did piano and tin whistle and those things, but none of us were marvellous. There are no amazing success stories before Brogan.”

They’ll just have to get used to it. It’s a big month for the little Derry girl. Still reeling from her 2011 triumph, she now faces a round of red carpets and premieres as Jig,a tremendously entertaining documentary account of last year’s world championship, opens in cinemas nationwide.

Brogan, a Titian-haired chatterbox whose speed on ghillies is matched by a lively articulacy, is one of the primary movers in Sue Bourne’s keenly anticipated new film. The director’s chronicle of the 40th meet in a contest known to purists as Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne and to scenesters as “the Worlds” is both a high-kicking sports movie and a handy primer to an event that brings in contestants from Holland, Russia and all over the US.

Outsiders may well gasp at the discipline’s contingent of travelling mums and dads. Fifteen-year-old championship hopeful Joe Bitter and his family have recently relocated from sunny Silicon Valley to the English midlands so that the talented youngster might train under former world champ John Carey; dad only had to pack in his successful medical practice and multi-million dollar Californian family home to get there.

Elsewhere, other parents work several jobs to pay for lessons, elaborate costumes and wigs. “There’s a downside to everything, and it is very expensive,” says Carole. “You do have to go without little things that you’d like to do or like to buy. But it’s like childbirth. When she won the other day you forget about all the pain and think, ‘That was all so worthwhile’.”

Brogan is a little more agnostic about the glamorous end of the business. “You have to get up real early to get ready,” she says.

Mum, despite the hefty price tag, is glad of the hairpieces. “I do hear some of the older people talking about curling the hair,” says Carole. “But we’re new to this so the wigs have always been around for us. They’re better than tongs. Sure Brogan’s hair is that straight we couldn’t get a curl in it for First Communion no matter what we did.”

Brogan’s main rival in this and every contest on the circuit is Julia O’Rourke from Long Island, New York. Julia, who has private tuition and her own physiotherapist, ought to be the villain of the piece. Not so. The two girls are good-natured competitors and good buddies.

“I love my friends from dancing,” gushes Brogan. “It’s great to be friends with all the girls in your age group so you can all have fun when you’re over and done with things.”

“Everybody is so close,” adds Carole. “The mammies all get on. We all have good crack together. It’s a lovely thing even when you’re not there to dance.”

Those seeking pushy stage parents will be sorely disappointed by Jig,and had best avoid the McCay house altogether.

“Brogan is a very gracious winner and a very gracious loser,” Carole tells me. “That makes me more proud of her than anything else. It’s something that can’t be taught. It’s just in her. She’s delighted for other girls when they do well. When she doesn’t win you think to yourself, ‘Oh, but she’s worked so hard’. But she always just says, ‘It’s their day today. Isn’t it brilliant?’ That’s what makes her so special. That’s why she has 700 friends on Facebook – all people she met Irish dancing.”

“Seven-hundred and sixty-five,” corrects Brogan, with the precision of a world champion.

The first time my younger cousin did an Irish jig for me, I thought she was performing some sort of exotic tribal dance. It turns out I wasn’t far off the mark: The documentary Jig presents a world that approaches child pageantry in its self-contained weirdness. Dancers from all different countries—followed from training to competition at the 40th Irish Dancing World Championships in Glasgow, Scotland—are seen as social outcasts with a fierce and at times inexplicable commitment to their craft. Middle-class families remortgage their homes to pay for the expensive coaching, and richer ones move to the U.K. so their talented children can get a home-field advantage. The female contestants don curly wigs and ridiculous studded gowns that they fawn over like heirlooms. The dances themselves, unlike the cloyingly serene soundtrack of Riverdance, are frenetic and somewhat off-putting, like a wind-up toy that’s gone rogue. And more than one parent interviewed said the motivation to win the “World’s” has little to nothing to do with the money—it’s all about the “prestige.”

A very niche prestige, to be sure. Jig doesn’t twist itself into the self-important, exploitative think piece on youth ambition that Spellbound was, but it does convincingly suggest that its subjects are in it for more than sport. In a way, the dancing sets them apart—both inside and outside of Ireland. One American girl born to parents of different national backgrounds clings to a part of her ethnic identity her Irish father wasn’t even familiar with. Another group of girls in Moscow seem to temporarily leave their city’s harsh environs when they practice (their coach jokes that they’re a bunch of “sad Russians”). And pint-sized 10-year-old John Whitehurst, the film’s winner in terms of sheer cuteness, is the kind of kid who might be called “gay” at school even if his passion wasn’t dancing (he lovingly describes the arrangement of his bedtime stuffed animals in detail), yet his joe-schmo father, who admits to knowing next to nothing about Irish dancing, is still pretty sure he’s amazing. When John gets to tell him some good news, it’s hard not to cheer him on. These kids operate in a closed-off world, but also one that allows them, in their own way, to prove what they’re worth.