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Love, Loss, and an Unexpected Career Path

by Adam Zielonka ’16 Apr 29, 2024

The Dan & Ellen Cunningham Dance Scholarship sounds simple enough on paper. But the fund, founded by Danny Cunningham ’86, is filled with special meaning.

It’s a product of Cunningham’s days as a performer, the losses he has lived through, and the unexpected career paths he has taken.  

Cunningham was the second of six children raised in Middletown, New Jersey. He and his older sister, Ellen Cunningham Akmentins, participated in their church’s folk group together, and they grew much closer as adults.

“She had a strong personality,” Cunningham says. “We grew up doing a lot together; we had mutual friends. My sister was funny and she was a very motivating person, and she had sort of an edge to her, which I think was pretty cool.”

Cunningham was part of the first graduating class of dance majors at Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales. After working at a dance company in Pittsburgh, he moved to New York and was cast in a European tour of “West Side Story.”

But while he was in Europe, he received the devastating news: his sister had been diagnosed with adrenal cancer. Cunningham paused his performing career and returned home, making a living as a judge for dance competitions. His priority was to be there for Ellen. 

He joined his parents and grandparents in forming a “caravan” that would accompany Ellen to her chemotherapy and doctor’s appointments while her husband worked. 

Before long, Ellen encouraged her brother to return to performing. Cunningham lined up regional theatre gigs and was doing a show in upstate New York in August 1991 when his mother called. After an eight-hour drive, he spent one memorable day with Ellen, and she passed away that night.

After her death, Cunningham learned that several of his castmates from “West Side Story” had died of AIDS. Having heard about their passing and also having close friends who were diagnosed with AIDS, he found it jarring to witness the difference between how his sister died with dignity and how HIV/AIDS patients were often treated.  

“More often than not, in my experience, they were ostracized, cut off from their families,” Cunningham says. “It could be because they were LGBTQ+. They were dying and there was no support the way my sister was supported. Not only were you facing terminal illness, but your family wasn’t there for you.”

Cunningham began volunteering at Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York City, the world’s first HIV/AIDS service organization. He felt called to move to the San Francisco Bay Area and transition to a new life working in hospice services, assisting the volunteer coordinator for Hospice By the Bay and volunteering with Mother Teresa’s Gift of Love House. 

Today, Cunningham is a private professional fiduciary and care manager. His work involves arranging care plans for families and serving as a conservator for individuals compromised in some way.

After Ellen’s death, Cunningham’s parents established a scholarship fund in her memory. Originally, it benefited two churches, two high schools, and Ellen’s alma mater, Rider University. After his parents’ deaths, Cunningham became the fund’s trustee. 

He added several scholarships, including one at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, which provides three meals a day to the homeless and hungry; another in his late brother Rob’s name at his high school; and the dance scholarship at DeSales, named after his parents. 

“I wanted an arts component of the trust, and I had such an amazing experience at DeSales. My parents were so supportive of my performing career and my continuing education, and they would have wanted this.”

 Danny Cunningham ’86

Established in 2017 and first awarded in 2019, the Dan & Ellen Cunningham Dance Scholarship is valued at $10,000. It disburses $2,500 annually over a dance major’s four years at the University.

The fund has assisted students like Megan Streichenwein ’24, a dance major and business minor, who plans to choreograph and teach dance after graduation.

“It’s really nice to have a little bit of my financial debt taken care of because that is a big part of going to college,” Streichenwein says. “I’m really grateful; it allows me to pursue my dream and do what I love.”

Cunningham hopes DeSales students appreciate the value of their liberal arts education—a foundation that has served him well in his unexpected career path. 

“You graduate with a degree in theatre, or a degree in dance,” he says. “If it doesn’t go the way you think it will go, which is the story of my life, you can do anything you want because of that education.”