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Susan Chaityn Lebovits | People

Skating around the world

Veteran coach passes on her passion for sport

Dorothy Cunningham takes a spin at Norfolk Arena, one of the area rinks where she teaches ice skating. Dorothy Cunningham takes a spin at Norfolk Arena, one of the area rinks where she teaches ice skating. (Bill Polo/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Susan Chaityn Lebovits
January 6, 2008

Dorothy Cunningham has spent much of the past half-century on ice.

The 65-year-old Franklin grandmother is the founder of Franklin Blades Skating School, based out of the Veterans Memorial Rink, director of the skating-instruction program at the Norfolk Arena, and codirector of the children's skating program at the Thayer Arena in Warwick, R.I. Some of her students have gone on to tour with shows such as Ice Capades and Holiday on Ice, but Cunningham says her satisfaction comes from watching the progress of all of her students, not just those who want to be superstars.

"I really believe that you need to appreciate everyone's efforts," said Cunningham, who also teaches third-graders at Mercymount Country Day School in Cumberland, R.I. "It doesn't matter what level you are if you're trying your best, and succeed at it."

Cunningham considers herself an educator first, which is why she developed a cultural exchange program for her students. "I wanted my skaters to carry with them more than just knowing how to skate," she said. "They won't always be on the ice, but they'll have memories that no one can take away from them."

The exchange program began in 2001 when eight skaters and a few parent chaperones traveled to Peterborough, England. They spent nine mornings skating with a local club, and afternoons immersing themselves in the area's culture. "We also put on an ice show, and the girls had a few sleepovers with their new friends," said Cunningham.

The group left for England a week after Cunningham finished her last chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. Despite the physical and emotional challenge, she managed to maintain her upbeat attitude with a little gallows humor.

"I had a wig and told my girls, 'When we go through Trafalgar Square, you'd better run if this thing blows off,' " said Cunningham.

Two years later, 12 girls and eight adults traveled from England to Boston's western suburbs. They stayed for nearly two weeks with local families, and competed in a meet in Marlborough. Skaters from England returned again in 2006.

The Franklin Blades have been invited back to Peterborough in April, and are looking for sponsors to help offset their travel expenses.

Over the years, competition days have brought excitement, but also unforeseen challenges. In the days before iPods and CDs, students would carry a 45-rpm record or an LP to the shows as their musical accompaniment, and the records occasionally would wind up lost or damaged.

Cunningham recalls one competition in particular, when a student brought in an LP that had been sitting in the back window of the family car and had warped. "We were ready for her to perform and the record wouldn't play," said Cunningham. "She was one of the top skaters in her category and had to skate without the music that afternoon - I hummed her song, 'Eleanor Rigby,' by the side of the rink. That was interesting."

The girl wound up placing second.

"I once had another girl forget her costume, and another who had been polishing her skates and left one at home," said Cunningham. "But those things are pretty ordinary."

Cunningham said that one of her biggest career highlights has been teaching two generations how to skate. She first taught Teri Onorato-Sedlier, then of Shrewsbury, how to skate when she was 9 years old. When Teri's daughter, Fasha, turned 3, Cunningham brought her out onto the ice. Fasha is now a senior at Clark University in Worcester, and both mother and daughter are skating instructors at Norfolk Arena.

Another noteworthy skating instructor at the Norfolk rink is Cunningham's daughter Pamela, 36, who toured with the Ice Capades in the 1990s.

Cunningham herself has been performing for the public since she was 2 years old. Her mother owned a dance studio in Providence, where Cunningham learned tap, jazz, and acrobatics. She and her sister appeared all over New England for local groups, such as the Knights of Columbus and the Eastern Star. They danced as part of the annual New Year's Eve gala at the since-closed Dreyfus Hotel in Providence for nearly a decade until she went off to college.

As a child, Cunningham and her family were members of the Pawtucket and Providence Figure Skating Club, but she could not take part in skating competitions because she was considered a professional dancer.

At the age of 19, Cunningham married and moved to Meridian, Miss., where her husband, Bill, was in Navy flight school. After his training, they lived in Washington, D.C., and both worked in the Pentagon in naval intelligence during the Cuban missile crisis.

"It was very interesting because we couldn't talk to each other about what we were doing, because it was classified," said Cunningham.

Soon after, she took a job teaching sixth grade in Alexandria, Va., where she remained for eight years. In 1969, they moved back to New England, and Cunningham taught seventh- and eighth-grade math in Millis and started teaching skating. Cunningham founded the Franklin Blades Skating School in 1991. She has lived in Franklin for nearly 40 years.

Cunningham recalls the days when her husband used to come to the rink and help videotape her classes. When he died in 2006, many of her former students from the 1970s, '80s, and '90s attended his wake.

"The girls decided to have a reunion and have been skating together ever since, under the name "Sophistiskates," said Cunningham. "I feel that the formation of this team is a real tribute to my husband."

The Sophistiskates were recently invited to perform at the 2008 Bay State Winter Games, which will be held at Williams College in March.

Sister Martha Mulligan, principal of Mercymount Country Day School, where Cunningham has taught third grade for 15 years, said Cunningham is a very creative teacher with lots of personality, and is willing to try new things. One project in particular revolves around the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which spans 1,150 miles in Alaska, from Anchorage to Nome.

"The children keep track of the dogs and mushers through graphs and reports, so it combines geography, math, and English," said Mulligan.

Another noteworthy lesson plan, said Mulligan, is Cunningham's medieval project, in which her students research castles, knights, lords and ladies, visit the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, and then at the end of the school year head to the beach to make medieval sand castles.

"God willing, my health will keep up," said Cunningham. "I'm very blessed because I am doing the things that I love to do: teaching school, which keeps me involved in education and learning, and choreographing routines at the rink, working with people on a whole different level."

For more on the Franklin Blades, visit Franklinblades.com.

To suggest a subject for a People column, e-mail Lebovits@globe.com.

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