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Danielle Parker is an Irish dance instructor in Hong Kong. There are many benefits to Irish dancing, from keeping people physically and mentally active to helping family bond with one another. Photo: Dickson Lee

How Irish dancing provides a great workout for body and brain and can strengthen family bonds

  • A fast-paced cardio exercise, Irish dancing can improve flexibility, physical strength and stamina; one study says it improves older performers’ quality of life
  • Holly, aged 10, whose mum teaches it in Hong Kong, says ‘I’ve enjoyed it my whole life’, and champion dancer Pippa – also 10 – says ‘I was born to dance’

It is 5.30pm on a Friday, a time when many in Hong Kong are winding down for the week. But at a community centre in Sai Kung, in the southeast New Territories, a group of young dancers energetically hop and kick their way around a studio.

The dancers are doing an Irish jig and, for some, the music and moves trigger memories of Riverdance. The hugely popular show started in 1995 in Ireland’s capital, Dublin. Since then, more than 25 million people have watched its performance on more than 450 stages worldwide.

The class is run by Echoes of Erin, an Irish dance school started by Catriona Newcombe, who hails from the small town of Ballycastle in Northern Ireland. She first did a degree in dance at Derby University in the United Kingdom that incorporated dance, healing and learning, dance therapy, music therapy, and drama therapy.

Now based in Ireland, she has also opened schools in her home country as well as in Dubai and Singapore.

An Irish dance class in Sai Kung, run by Echoes of Erin, an Irish dance school. Photo: Dickson Lee

At the studio is Danielle Parker, one of the school’s instructors who in 2016 won the Irish dancing European Championships and the World Championships held in the English seaside city of Brighton.

She started dancing aged five in her native Australia. “I went to an Irish dance performance and really fell in love with the dresses,” she says. “My mum told me if I wanted to wear those dresses then I’d have to do the dance.”

How Hong Kong’s Irish residents celebrate their heritage

Parker is dropping off her daughter, Holly, 10, who is following in her mother’s energetic footsteps.


“I have classes three times a week,” says Holly, who started dancing when she was just three. “I’ve enjoyed it my whole life.”

And while traditional Irish dance is a rite of passage for many in Ireland, the dance has other benefits. It is also a great workout for the body – and brain.

Danielle and Holly Parker at the 2019 World Championships in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Photo: courtesy of Danielle Parker
It is a fast-paced cardiovascular exercise that can improve flexibility, range of motion, physical strength and stamina. “We’re constantly jumping and kicking and leaping so it does take a lot of cardiovascular effort,” Parker says.

It also strengthens the core, the area between the pelvic floor and diaphragm that helps to hold and protect the spine.


“While dancing it’s important to keep your upper body as straight and rigid as possible, and to keep your arms straight by your side,” she says. “It’s harder than it looks but is a great workout for the core.”

Dancers of the Riverdance Irish Troupe during a dress rehearsal in Hong Kong in 2011. Photo: Xinhua
It also keeps you mentally active. “You’re constantly moving and your steps and performances are always changing, so your brain is working all the time.”
In 2016, a study involving more than 70 adults aged 55 years or older with Parkinson’s disease – a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that mainly affects the motor system – compared balance, physical fitness and quality of life in healthy older Irish set dancers and age-matched non-set dancers. Irish set dance is a form of folk dance performed in groups of four or eight.

The results showed that regular set dancers had better balance, endurance and quality of life than non-set dancers.

Change up your workouts for a mental health and well-being boost

“I think the only downside is it can be a bit noisy for the neighbours if you’re practising on a wooden floor in a flat in Hong Kong,” laughs Danielle. She has also avoided injury. “I’ve been very lucky.”


A proper warm up – which increases the heart rate and blood flow to the muscles and activates the nervous system while getting the blood flowing – is crucial.

“Generally shins and ankles are vulnerable, but when I’m dancing or teaching I do exercises and warm ups that stretch these areas and focus on building the muscles around them.”

Pippa Atkins is an International Champion Irish dancer. Photo: Dickson Lee

Also taking part in today’s class is 10-year-old Pippa Atkins. She is an International Champion Irish dancer, scooping the 9-10 age group title in 2020/21 when the championships were moved online because of Covid travel restrictions.


“I was born to dance … when I was young I used to dance in the supermarket,” she says.

Next year, Pippa will be part of a Hong Kong contingent that will attend the World Championships in Killarney, Ireland.


While today’s class is all girls, Parker says Irish dance is for everyone. She wants to see more people of all ages and genders embrace it.

“It’s so uplifting … it gets under your skin.”

Two popular dancers right now are Irish brothers Michael and Matthew Gardiner. They have a huge following on social media: 2 million on TikTok and almost 700,000 on Instagram.

Last year, American Morgan Bullock became the first black female Irish dancer to tour with Riverdance.

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