How the Parker Sisters Helped to Bring an International Art Form to Life in the Lehigh Valley
Jacque Parker ’09 has been an avid dancer since childhood. Like most young girls, she started out learning traditional tap and ballet. But it wasn’t until Michael Flatley and Jean Butler burst onto the world stage that she found her true passion.
“Michael Flatley is really the one that we can thank for taking Irish dance out of its traditional form and making it appealing to the world,” she says.
Parker was in elementary school when the lord of the dance hit the mainstream, igniting an Irish dance revolution. Her older sister, Dawn, instantly fell in love with the popular dance form, but Parker resisted until their mother made her try it.
“I remember going to my first class and I really didn’t want to be there,” Parker, a major gift officer at DeSales, says with a laugh. “But I instantly made friends and it was a great environment.”
The sisters continued taking classes and performing. Before long, their love of Irish dance blossomed into a passion for teaching. While Parker was just starting college, Dawn—then a senior at Moravian College—came up with a plan to start the first Irish dance class in the school’s history. The class was a hit, and a club and performance troupe soon followed.
“By 2007, we had so many people from the outside community that wanted to take Irish dance classes with us that we had to grow.”
The sisters founded the Irish Stars Parker School of Irish Dance, teaching at locations in Phillipsburg, Bethlehem, and Hellertown. That same year, Parker transferred from Northampton Community College to DeSales. She auditioned for the theatre program but soon realized it wasn’t possible with her schedule.
“I needed practicum hours in the theatre program, and there was no way I could do it with the dance school. It killed me but I had to make both my worlds work.”
She pursued a communication major with a professional application in tech theatre, learning everything from costuming and sewing to hair and makeup—all while still teaching Irish dance.
Having generations of family that called Hellertown home, it was always the sisters’ goal to open a permanent studio there. In 2008, Dawn founded the St. Theresa Irish Dance Club at their alma mater, St. Theresa School in Hellertown.
Eventually, they opened the permanent Irish Stars Studio location on Main Street. Over the years, the sisters have taught hundreds of students ranging in age from toddlers to adults.
“We really have been able to teach a diverse population of students, and I think that’s where the heart of the school is. We have students that went through our program, went to college, and then came back to our school as adults.”
Locally, they’ve performed everywhere from Phillies and Sixers games to nursing homes and schools. Most years, they can be seen at Musikfest, Celtic Night at the Lehigh Valley IronPigs stadium, and Allentown’s St. Patrick’s Day parade.
While St. Patrick’s Day is by far their biggest holiday, the sisters choreograph a Christmas Extravaganza dance drama with a different theme each year. They also put on unique productions throughout the year, infusing pop culture into the traditional Irish art form.
“We’re always trying to think outside of the box creatively and with performance opportunities. This past year, we did the Irish Nutcracker as well as dances inspired by Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Titanic.”
In addition to performing, the Parker sisters make it a point to focus on positive reinforcement and to instill in their students discipline, hard work, and a strong sense of self.
Kassandra Nunes ’21 knows that firsthand. She met the Parkers when she joined the club at St. Theresa’s and later went on to enroll in the school. Nunes has traveled across the country performing Irish dance, even winning nationals.
“Everyone in the school has always been very supportive and accepted me for me,” says the accounting major who recently transferred to DeSales. “Participating in Irish dance has helped me grow as a person to have more confidence. It has given me another place where I call home.”
That family feel has always been key to the Parker sisters’ success. While Dawn recently quit her day job to focus on the studio full time, Parker— who worked in fundraising before returning to DeSales in 2018 as a major gift officer—has decided to scale back her hours at the studio to better blend her passion with her position. Still, her students are never far from her mind.
“Irish dance is rooted in family,” she says. “Our school has always been built on family.”