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.