For the Love of Dance
Aug 05, 2016

Hong Kong residents are kicking up their heels in novel ways, thanks to businesses catering to the dance fitness craze.

From traditional classical ballet, to ethnic, folk and contemporary “aerial” dance, classes that tap the city’s inner beat are big business in Hong Kong.

Scottish-born Kathryn O’Connor-Barton set up her eponymous Irish dance company in November 2011, 10 months after arriving with her two daughters and husband, who was on a work assignment to Hong Kong.

A successful competition dancer, Ms O’Connor-Barton had run a dance school in Glasgow, and after settling her family into their new home, “wanted to do something more.” She began offering after-school lessons at her daughters’ New Territories primary school, and a business was spawned.

Today, the O’Connor Barton School of Irish Dance runs classes for children and adults at multiple venues across Hong Kong. She says her business remains the only Irish dance school in the city registered with the world’s largest Irish dance organisation, the Dublin-based An Coimisiun le Rince Gaelacha (known as CLRG).

Ms O’Connor-Barton also inaugurated international competition in the city. In April, the fourth annual Hong Kong International Irish Dance Premierships drew competitors from seven countries, including Australia, the United States, Japan and the Chinese mainland. Several of the school’s top dancers are also training to compete overseas.

Performance and competition are incentives for younger students. “The music is lively, and it’s fun and social for them,” she says. “The kids are getting exercise and the classes are disciplined, which parents like as well.”

The adults who join classes at the Central studio have never danced before, but are inspired by what their children are learning, she adds.

Initially unsure how successful the venture would be, Ms O’Connor-Barton, nonetheless, found it easy to set up the business. And as is often the case with start-ups in the compact city of Hong Kong, word-of-mouth soon spread. “Once we started to do the competitions, interest really took off,” says Ms O’Connor-Barton. She will organise the 2017 competition soon after the world championships in Dublin, hoping to attract even more high-level dancers to the city.

Oxana Banshikova established her Cosmic Dance company in 2011, two years after arriving in Hong Kong. Originally from Kazakhstan, the performer, teacher and choreographer of the classical Indian dance style Bharatanatyam wants to popularise Indian dance in Hong Kong. “We also work with modern-dance styles, and are continually seeking to expand our horizons,” she says.

At the time, Ms Banshikova says, there was little awareness about Indian classical dance in Hong Kong. “It took me two years to build interest and get enough students to start regular classes,” she says, marketing mostly by word-of-mouth, community performances and locally through digital and traditional media.

“We started with four people, and now there are 70 students aged from four to 60 years old,” she says. “We also have a performing group of senior students who perform on a regular basis at cultural, charity and corporate events all over Hong Kong.”

Originated some 2,000 years ago in Indian temples, Bharatanatyam is closely related to yoga. “Its style is still quite rare, and students like the feeling of uniqueness,” says Ms Banshikova. “People are attracted to the rich history and mythology behind it, and by learning this style of dance, students notice improvement in their coordination and rhythm.”

Her school has been successful, Ms Banshikova believes, because “Hong Kong is a very multicultural place with open-minded people who are not afraid to try something new. Cultural diversity also helps us to be invited to perform for different occasions by Hong Kong organisations,” she adds.

Latin dance has a strong following in Hong Kong as elsewhere, which Javed Rasool, a media and events professional and DJ, capitalised on by establishing Dance With Style in 2012.

The company provides salsa, bachata, Cuban salsa and Rueda De Casino (salsa in circle) dance instruction to adults and children, as well as organising salsa, Latin and world music events. The business has also branched into corporate dance classes, event dance lessons and team-building events.

Originally from India, Mr Rasool – popularly known as Deejay Javed – moved to Hong Kong in 2001.

He believes the genre has taken off because “Hong Kong is a world city where expats and locals live in harmony, and salsa being a global dance form, is embraced by all.” Besides, he adds, salsa is quick, easy and fun to learn, compared to other dance forms. “It’s a great outlet to de-stress, and has many health benefits: you can make new friends, network and more,” Mr Rasool says.

Above all, salsa is very social in nature, he adds. “Complete strangers end up dancing together for hours. One does not need a partner to dance salsa as we rotate the participants during class.”

Dance With Style teaches clients from companies large and small, offering three types of corporate dance classes. According to Mr Rasool, “there is no better way to get your workplace more productive and motivated than by giving them the excitement and fun of salsa/Latin dancing.”

Pole Position

Husband-and-wife team Joe and Symone Dolai
Husband-and-wife team Joe and Symone Dolai go through their hoops at Pole Paradise Studio
Enterprising Hong Kong-born Symone Dolai established Pole Paradise Studio in November 2009. This highly physical dance sector has “definitely changed, all for the better,” in the years since, she says.

It’s still a place “for people to come and indulge in their curiosity for something different,” says Ms Dolai, who teaches “tricks” including dancing on bars, looping through suspended hoops, and spinning among yards of silk fabric, all of which demand a gymnast’s skill.

The fact that children’s classes are now held, and some men join the adult classes – where Ms Dolai’s husband, Joe, is also an instructor – shows that aerial dance, incorporating a pole, has become mainstream.

It’s physically demanding, exhilarating to learn, and a fun way to tone the body with an all-over workout, Ms Dolai says. The oldest student is 62, who took up the challenging sport to combat her arthritis.

Pole Paradise studios in Sheung Wan and Sai Kung are patronised by office workers, homemakers and university students alike. In the six and a half years since pioneering one of the first dance studios of its kind in Hong Kong, Ms Dolai estimates that about 3,000 students have come through her door.