Much has been written about the incredible careers of Michael Malitowski and Joanna Leunis. But what's less known about the couple is the incredible influence the "dance educationist and psychotherapist" Ruud Vermeij had on their success.
After Malitowski and Leunis started dancing together in 2002, they won every major title in the Professional Latin category before their retirement in 2015, including International Professional Open (2005-2011), European Professional Latin (2007-2011), and World Professional Latin (2008 and 2009). They captivated packed houses at such prestigious venues as Royal Albert Hall in London, the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, and the Winter Gardens in Blackpool, England. And they performed before a worldwide audience on TV shows such as the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing and ABC's Dancing with the Stars.
All of those accomplishments came under the tutelage of Vermeij -- Malitowski's and Leunis' instructor for more than two decades.
With degrees in movement and dance studies as well as psychotherapy and counseling, Vermeij holds the distinction of being the first dance instructor in the world to possess a doctoral degree in ballroom dancing. Formerly a professional dancer himself, he wrote one of the most in-depth analyses of ballroom dancing that's ever been produced in 1996, a dense academic tome called "Thinking, Sensing, and Doing in Latin American Dancing." He's also the co-founder of the Dutch Dance Lab, a "place where dancers, choreographers, and teachers can acquire tailor-made, high-end dance knowledge and skills."
Anyone who doubts the extent of Vermeij's influence on modern-day ballroom dancing need look no further than the round-table discussion he organized in March 2011 to talk about the concept of technique. Vermeij assembled some of the foremost minds in the dance world to answer questions like, "What is the role of technique?" and "How does it change?" But some of the most insightful commentary came from himself, including this nugget: "It is primarily dancers who make technique, and not technique that makes dancers."
It was fitting then that when Malitowski and Leunis retired after winning the Open British Championships for the eighth year in a row in 2015, they paid special tribute to Vermeij. "Without a doubt our biggest thank you must go to Ruud Vermeij," they wrote in their farewell letter. "We always felt he was with us for a full 100%. And to be honest: that wasn't always that easy. Dear Ruud, you are our hero. In dance and in life."
It was equally fitting that Vermeij responded with a glowing tribute of his own. "Michael and Joanna have shown in their career to always stay on their own path, believing in what they are doing and following their own intuitive choices," he wrote. "They merged their personal style with the required dance style on an edgy balance."
After his star pupils retired, some of the day-to-day authority Vermeij once possessed in the dance world began to fade, but the man's influence on the history and future of ballroom dancing will never be forgotten.