Kelly McDonnell pictured with Michael Flatley.

From dancing all over the globe to a passion for fashion!

Having danced all over the globe with stars like Michael Flatley, lived in Shanghai for a year, and met celebrities like Liam Neeson and Sharon Stone, Athlone resident Kelly McDonnell has packed a lot into her 40 years.

Barring Australia and Dubai, Kelly, who has called Athlone home for four years this Christmas, jokes that she has been everywhere else!

A professional Irish dancer at an international level for many years, she was lucky enough to come on the scene after Riverdance in 1998 drove a massive resurgence in the art and led to many new opportunities at home and overseas.

Originally from Newport in Tipperary, Kelly started Irish dancing at the tender age of three with the Fleming Ball School of Dancing, progressing through competitions, before later heading to do a music/dance course in college in Cork after school.

She remembers seeing Riverdance the night of her Confirmation at her aunt's house during the break in Eurovision.

“My reaction was – wow – but I didn't get the real want (to perform) until I saw 'Lord of the Dance' and that's when I went that's what I want to do,” she recalls.

Luckily for her, the renewed interest in Irish dancing meant many new shows got off the ground who needed talented dancers.

While she acknowledges that it was a lot of hard work, Kelly has fond memories of her time as lead dancer on some of the biggest dance shows, a career that brought her all over the world for close to 20 years.

Kelly pictured on stage during her Irish dancing career.

She first started dancing in a show with well-known accordion player Liam O'Connor, before moving as lead dancer to 'Dance of Desire' and 'Magic of the Dance' which toured all over Germany, Russia, Taiwan over the winter months for close to nine years. Then in the summer she returned to Killarney from April to October for a summer residence show.

She got a huge break in her 20s becoming a dancer in Michael Flatley's 'Celtic Tiger' show, his new show following 'Lord of the Dance'.

“We trained in Pinewood Studios in London where they make the Bond movies, so we were out there in an air hangar for about seven or eight months training with Michael Flatley,” something she described as an “experience of a lifetime”.

“I really admire him. Obviously, I was there with him at the height of his career, and I've seen what he has done for Irish dance. He took Irish dance and he put on shows in stadiums with 100,000 people. A guy from Chicago dancing a jig, you know,” she says of his impact, adding that she was very fortunate to dance in Madison Square Garden in New York in front of thousands of people during this time.

In addition to being in huge shows, Kelly was also lucky enough to dance at a host of high-profile events during her career, including ten All Ireland Finals, at several Berlin Film Festivals for stars like Leonardo Di Caprio, Liam Neeson and Sharon Stone, the JP McManus Pro-am and the World Expo in Shanghai, where she lived for twelve months.

After 'Celtic Tiger' she moved to a show called 'Women of Ireland' which is quite like the 'Celtic Women' show which toured all over America and places like Tokyo and Chile for five years.

“I think Riverdance put it (Irish dance on the map) in the very beginning with Michael Flatley. They (the audience) see the line-up and music all combined together in a full scale production, a spectacle and it's a performance worth paying the ticket price to go see. I think that is the draw all over the world,” she says of its enduring appeal, and while people still appreciate Irish dance shows in Ireland she doesn't know if it is big as it once was.

“It was fantastic. You're getting to play big venues in America and you're walking in the door and your name is up on the dressing room because you're the lead dancer. It's just the way you're treated, it's another level.”

Now 40, she retired from dancing at 36, having stopped international touring four years earlier. In between she took a break for a year, living in Salt Lake City where she qualified as a dance teacher and taught full-time with the Scarriff School of Dancing.

Kelly later came back to Ireland and produced a show in Killarney for several years until her retirement and her move to Athlone to be with her long-term partner.

Dancing is in her blood, and it is always going to be in her life in some shape or form, Kelly says, explaining that she learned a lot from the various productions, acting as the company and tour managers for some of the shows and gaining experience in production, costumes and staging.

She'd love to get to produce her own big show after being so close to a deal for a production in Las Vegas until Covid intervened. Although philosophical about the experience, she says it feels like a lifetime ago, her life has taken a different turn in the Midlands where she reinvented herself working in fashion and as a workshop teacher with Longford dancing school O'Neill Blake Academy.

Asked about the current cheating controversy engulfing Irish dancing, Kelly admits she is not shocked by the revelations out there now and it's something she has known for a long time.

“It does need to be addressed and I'm glad it has been brought to the papers. I don't think it's fair on parents and children, I don't think it's fair at all. It's a political game like everywhere but it's about time it got cleaned up,” she says candidly, underlining the importance of it being stamped out as the reputation of Irish dancing around the world is on the line. Kelly stresses that it's not fair on people who have worked hard and did everything the right way as she has herself.

Athlone resident Kelly McDonnell on stage during her time as a professional Irish dancer with musician Liam O’Connor.

While touring the talented dancer says you're in a bubble, going from tour bus to hotel to venue, and there is a sacrifice in terms of missing out on family occasions, holidays, relationships and building a home. Since retiring from the road, the Tipperary native says she has a big interest in homemaking, lifestyle interiors, and of course, fashion.

Always having a grá for style, Kelly did some modelling with Celia Holman Lee during her dancing days and was a former Miss Ireland contestant in 2006. So, unsurprisingly, when she moved to Athlone it came to fore after she secured a job in fashion.

“I'm loving it, I'm full-time ladies product manager and a stylist for River Island and I'm available for personal styling outside of work as well,” explains Kelly, who is working hard on creating an Instagram platform for her passion for fashion. She will also be doing some social media work for River Island promoting their clothes.

Always embracing new challenges and evolving, Kelly gets a kick from personal styling and is enjoying working with Athlone women to help them feel comfortable but still think outside the box a bit in terms of clothes and their look.

“When they say 'that's lovely. I'd never thought of putting that with that,” Kelly beams with pride, saying that she has styled for all ages and situations from someone returning to work or the corporate world to someone who needs a holiday or post wedding wardrobe and she has big plans on that front in 2023.

“It (fashion) was always in the background and it's evolving now,” she observes, having recently judged the best dressed competition at the Buccaneers RFC fashion show in Athlone, something she really loved.

Kelly McDonnell.

Asked if Irish women have a common fashion mistake, Kelly remarks that something she sees very often is that a woman will buy a really expensive dress from say, Brown Thomas, but it will be styled with the wrong shoes, makeup or accessories.

“It's about having the eye, the attention to detail and coordination, but then you don't always have to be matching either,” Kelly comments, saying that style is achievable on a budget, and she loves mixing high street with higher end or vintage pieces.

With a bank of contacts all over the globe, the Athlone resident looks forward to seeing where her journey takes her and doesn't rule out working in wardrobe or costume design for productions or dance shows in the future, having recently been asked to style characters for an upcoming TV show.

“I'm just going to see where my path takes me but I'm open to all options,” she says, adding that she is now taking appointments for personal styling via her Instagram page @donnellkellymc