An arena filled with peasant dresses, curly wigs, flying feet and dancing sans hands.
It can only mean one thing. No, it's not the last night of a Shirley Temple convention, but rather a fiercely competitive Irish Dancing competition. And they don't get any bigger than the World Championships held at Easter each year.
But although Riverdance and Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance have given global audiences a taste of hoofing Irish style, most of us lacking the appropriate Celtic roots would have little idea of the steps or form of the dance, especially as a dancesport. That is until now.
Gaining unprecedented access to this seemingly secret world (one of those interviewed appears to compare it to Fight Club - "we don't really talk about Irish dancing outside of Irish dancing"), British director Sue Bourne (TV's Cutting Edge reality series) attempts to lift the veil on why young people and their parents dedicate their lives to what many confess is "simply a hobby".
Taking the now well-worn Spellbound approach, Bourne focuses on a number of top performers in the lead up to the 2010 World Championships in Glasgow.
Amongst this eclectic and engaging bunch are 10-year-old Billy Elliot-esque Brummy John Whitehurst, relocated American teen Joe Bitter, Sri Lankan-born Dutchman Sandun Verschoor, 20-something Essex girl Simona Mauriello and Trans-Atlantic tween rivals Derry's Brogan McCay and New York's Julia O'Rourke.
The last pair's rivalry forms the bulk of the running time, which provides for fascinating viewing as it contrasts their differing approaches and way of life (Julia's life appears to revolve around her private lessons while Bronagh is taught mainly by her family who have much more modest means).
Sacrifice is a common theme amongst the interviewees with Simona's mother appearing the most driven to see her daughter succeed. Having already remortgaged her house twice, her obsession is plain to see, especially when she drops comments like, "I didn't care if she could read or write, I just wanted her to be world champion".
Of course all their hours of hard work and preparation goes into a maximum of three 35-second performances at the worlds and Bourne's camera does a good job of capturing both the whirlwind of kicks (more of the opening's knee-high view would have been welcome though) and the tension etched on their supporters faces (especially as their fortunes ebb and flow in a mere minutes).
Their nerves are probably not helped by perhaps the least well-explained part of the competition, the judging. It still feels like a highly subjective process (you may find yourself as I did howling at the results), shrouded in mystery and wrapped in an enigma and involves a scoring system requiring a calculator at every turn.
Little wonder the young competitors appear to have no idea as to how they are doing (which actually provides for some unintentional humour within the film).
A lack of onscreen graphics is a little disappointing, but Patrick Doyle's (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) understated score does a nice job of capturing the rising tension during the main competition.
Not exactly spellbinding or Spellbound, but an interesting insight nonetheless into the real, Flatley-free world of Irish Dancing.
- © Fairfax NZ News