Irish dancing championships sees Asia's quickest feet square-off in Hong Kong

The jigIrish dancing has grown in popularity ever since several wildly popular stage shows went on tour in the 1990s. Now Hong Kong has a global competition on its doorstep, writes Karen Pittar

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 April, 2014, 10:45am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 April, 2014, 10:45am

As a young girl growing up on a small farm in County Carlow, Ireland, Helen Doyle's life was filled with traditional music and dance.

"My mother and my sisters, we all danced," Doyle says. "In my mother's time she did a lot of ceili [Irish group dancing], she tells stories of how friends and family would visit each other's homes on the weekends to dance and play Irish music. This was how they socialised back in the 1950s and '60s. My sisters and I would dance at weddings or at old people's homes to entertain. At all social occasions traditional music would fill the rooms and we would dance ceili such as The Walls of Limerick and Siege of Ennis. Good fun and great memories."

Doyle's love of Irish dance has never waned; she still dances and has passed this passion to her daughters, 11-year-old Aisling and Ciara, who is seven. Both have been learning Irish dancing for about three years.

I started learning when I was just three years old - it has been my passion for 34 years 
Kathryn o'connor-barton, dance teacher 

"When we moved to Hong Kong eight years ago I wanted to ensure we introduced some Irish culture to our children. Learning the steps helps the girls understand the origin of Irish dancing, the part it plays and has played in life in Ireland," Doyle says. "It gives them an appreciation for Irish music and rhythm. Since their cousins learn dancing in Ireland, they have a common interest with them and can discuss dances, competitions and steps when they get together in the holidays."

For those who aren't quite sure what Irish dancing is like, think Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance show: high kicks and leaps, intricate, fast footwork, glittering costumes, Gaelic pipes and fiddles. Indeed, since Flatley and his talented troupe first hit the stage in the mid-1990s Irish dancing has taken the world by storm - and it's not just those with Irish heritage who are wholeheartedly embracing it.

Irish dance is increasingly popular globally, and this is something teacher Kathryn O'Connor-Barton is seeing in Asia.

"Thanks to the extraordinary success of shows such as Lord of the Dance, Feet of Flames, Celtic Tiger and Riverdance, interest in Irish dance is flourishing," she says. "It's estimated more than 250,000 people world-wide regularly attend lessons, whether step dancing [performed by individuals] or team dancing such as traditional ceili. I wanted to bring my experience into the studio in Hong Kong and teach students of every nationality or background who are interested in Irish dance."

A qualified teacher and adjudicator as well as an award-winning dancer, O'Connor-Barton opened the O'Connor-Barton Irish Dance School Hong Kong in 2011, when she moved with her family to Asia from Scotland.

"I left my school in Glasgow where I had been for almost a decade and had trained Irish dance champions, to start a new experience here," she says.

"Today, we hold classes all over Hong Kong from Clear Water Bay and Central to Mui Wo and Hong Lok Yuen. My students are local Chinese, Irish, Scottish, English, Welsh, Filipino, Australian, South African, American, Japanese, Italian, Indian and even Brazilian. There are around 65 dancers in the school of all ages and all share a love of dance. It is a very disciplined style of dance, so both parents and students enjoy the benefits."

Karen Shum enrolled her daughter, Nicole, at O'Connor-Barton two years ago. "Nicole had tried freestyle and tap dancing for several years, but she didn't think of them as long-term hobbies because of a lack of interest," says Shum. "She was invited by one of her friends to try Irish dancing - that was over two years ago."

Nicole is Hong Kong-born and bred but Shum says her daughter has enthusiastically embraced the pastime that it is teaching her much more than simple dance steps. "Irish Dance offers Nicole brand new experiences and the chance to boost her self-esteem through performances and competitions. It has also introduced teamwork, for instance two-hands, three-hands and eight-hands [group dances] require a lot of co-operation."

Shum says Irish dance focuses on footwork and requires precise movements - a challenge her daughter relishes. "Besides, Irish dance requires the dancers to keep their back straight all the time, which I have found an additional benefit as it has improved Nicole's posture," she says.

However, O'Connor-Barton has gone far beyond simply offering Irish dance lessons to locals like Nicole Shum. She is also ensuring her pupils make the most of what they learn and show off their talent by taking part in international competitions - even if she has to create them herself.

O'Connor-Barton is the brains behind the upcoming Hong Kong International Irish Dance Premiership, hosted and sponsored by the Auberge hotel in Discovery Bay. This is the competition's second year; last year dancers from Hong Kong and Taiwan took part but O'Connor-Barton's aim has always been to bring all of Asia into the mix.

"I set this up last year with the ambition that dancers from around Asia and beyond come to Hong Kong to compete for the title," O'Connor-Barton says. "This year we are delighted to attract dancers from the Middle East, Shanghai, Japan, Taiwan and seven schools from across Australia, which is just fantastic."

Spectators can expect to see Irish dance across all grades, from four-year-olds to adults. "There will be solo competitions, figure dancing and ceili dancing competitions, as well as the traditional set dance and open set dance competitions: a wide range of traditional Irish dance at World Championship standard on our doorstep."

Karen Shum's daughter and Helen Doyle's will be dancing for Hong Kong.

"I like the competitions," says 13-year-old Nicole Shum. "They show me how much I have improved since the last one. I like meeting new people in the workshops and dancing with them. I especially enjoy eight-hand dances as co-operation plays a major role and it's much more challenging than solo dances."

Aisling Doyle, 11, will be dancing seven solos, as well as taking part in the two-hand, three-hand and eight-hand team dances.

She can't wait for the premiership to start: "I really enjoy the competitions and dancing with my friends. I am from Ireland, and Irish dance lets me learn something about my background. I would recommend it to others because it keeps you very fit and it is a lovely dance and culture to learn about," she says.

O'Connor-Barton is thrilled to be sharing her love of Irish dance with a new and diverse generation.

"I started learning when I was just three years old - it has been my passion for 34 years. Apart from keeping me very fit, I love teaching my students; they bring me a lot of joy and make me so proud. Considering the majority of my students were raw beginners two years ago, they have achieved so much."

Hong Kong International Irish Dance Premiership, April 26-27, Auberge, Discovery Bay. For more information, visit www.