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Famous Ballroom Dancers Perform at MIT

By Nadezhda Belova

Every spring, the MIT Ballroom Dance Team hosts the MIT Open Ballroom Dance Competition. One of the highlights of the competition is a show by professional dancers. This year, the team invited Michael Malitowski and Joanna Leunis, the 2005 World Professional Latin Vice Champions, 2005 British Open Professional Latin Finalists, and 2004 World South American Show Dance Champions. After the performance, I interviewed the two dancers separately, though responses to similar questions are grouped together.

The Tech: Why do you dance?

Michael Malitowski: Why do I dance? That is an essential question. I guess because I love to do it, because I hate to do it. It challenges me, and so I love it, and I hate it. It’s my job already, I am a professional dancer so it is my job, eight hours a day.

Joanna Leunis: Why do I dance? Oh because I’ve always danced, actually since I am maybe two. I remember I was all the time moving and dancing with whoever wanted to dance with me. So it’s like in my blood, I think I always wanted to dance.

TT: As a child did you imagine that that’s what you’d end up doing?

MM: No. In the beginning I just wanted to dance and then it became a way of life.

TT: Did you want to dance ballroom or to dance in general?

MM: In the beginning, I just wanted to move. I always wanted to be a ballet dancer but in my city there was no Ballet School, it was in Zielona Gora in Western Poland. My parents wanted me to go to school and really study. Last year I got a diploma, a Masters in Dance Education.

TT: Why Ballroom?

JL: By coincidence. I got quite sick when I was small, and after recovery, my father pushed me to go to one of they are called “Open Door of Ballroom Dancing” in my school. And there were dance lessons. He brought me there, and I immediately loved it. I saw my first dance show there, it was like a Belgium couple was doing a show, and it just grabbed me.

TT: Would you want ballroom dance to be an Olympic Sport?

MM: Yes.

TT: Why?

MM: Because it wouldn’t change, would not make it more sporty, but I think that it would make it easier to judge because we would have to develop criteria more clearly, and it would become even more popular and will have more money involved.

TT: Do you think it might become an Olympic Sport by 2012?

MM: I don’t think so. It takes awhile. Now I am not sure, the program “Dancing with the Stars” is so popular. It brings people to the social aspect of dancing and not the sport. Can be bad if it goes towards the social and not really sporty.

TT: So do you think ballroom dance is it a sport, or art, or both?

MM: I guess I don’t have one opinion on all this. People try to fight about this, whether it is sport or art, for me it is just ballroom dancing, I don’t know. I treat it artistically, but if I was sitting on my couch and thinking only about this I wouldn’t be able to do it. I have to practice, I have to go to the gym, I have to treat my body in the sporty way, but when I am doing it I am not at all busy with the sports aspect of it because that would look athletic and completely different. So I guess it is some sort of a combination.

JL: I think we are both a little bit. You need some stamina before you can rely on the art. It’s like more of an integral training. The heart [rate] goes up and down, or you had to be used to going very high and coming back down. It’s a bit more like an integral training, so you need that. All the while there is an art, that is present, that must be present, so you have to combine both.

TT: How much do you practice?

MM: As I said this is our job, if we don’t put in eight hours a day on our profession then we are not good professionals. Five days a week and then on the weekends, shows.

TT: If you weren’t dancing, or if you could do something else, what would it be?

MM: Probably sports. I would be a tennis player. That would be only about myself and I would not have to deal with another person and I like the sport. I love playing soccer and I used to play it, so I could do it as well. I think something athletic like this. I see myself teaching at the University something about dancing, or [something] artistic. I used to play in my university in plays. So I think something like this.

JL: I always love watching ice skating but my hobbies are as well skiing. So I love skiing, when I can go when I have time I do that.

TT: What is the message of ballroom dance? How is it different from ballet and modern? What is its appeal, its uniqueness?

MM: I think the difference [is] that it’s two people. You need two people, man and woman, if one person is doing Cha-cha it’s not the same. If one person is doing a solo in the Swan Lake, that’s it, that’s good. If someone is doing Chicago movements like in musical, but in ballroom dancing we have two people and that is the main thing. I think that’s it.

TT: What is the idea that you try to show in your dances, that is consistently in your mind?

MM: Oh yeah, I think that is making us different from other couples because we are not trying to be Cuban because we are not Cuban, we are not trying to be Latin American because we are not Latin American. Our idea is that we bring every possible thing that is in ourselves, in our character, in our background and whatever is happening around in the arts we are trying to bring to the dance floor, so that’s it. For us it is a kind of expression and trying to do the Cha-cha, and doing it masculine or feminine, that is not the case in our case.

JL: Yes, I think more the pure enjoyment of what I do, and the emotions that you can create through dancing. You are not anymore whatever person you are out of the floor you become someone else on the floor. I hope that can reach the person in a certain way.

TT: So is it about the connection between the partners?

MM: It can be about a lot of different stuff. It can be about the choreography, it can be about the kinesthetic feeling, about the experience of the speed, about the music, and it can be about the rhythm, the dynamics and about the action.

TT: What else do you do outside of ballroom, something you particularly enjoy?

MM: At the moment because we are a particularly active couple we are and we try to achieve the success so everything else is on the side. I was able to finish the university but it cost me a lot of money and time to travel back and forth to the university and to pass all of the exams. Once I did that I focused only on the dancing. I try to play soccer sometimes, I did it last week and I loved it. I am interested in reading a lot of arts stuff, I read books about it, especially all the contemporary stuff, I really love it. I really love contemporary art. I try to read it because it is part of our job, if we were not doing this our dancing would not progress If I go to the cinema to see a good alternative movie I treat it as a process of developing my dancing.

TT: What makes a good partnership?

MM: More and more I think accepting the differences in each other. Because we have to understand that we are really different, every person is an individual, and very often we make that mistake that we want the other person to think the same way and to do certain things the same way that we think.

TT: So do you have disagreements sometimes about dance?

MM: Of course, of course, every day. But I think the essential reason why it lasts is there is a point that we have to accept what the other person is thinking or doing, and black and white looks very good together.

TT: Do you two do the choreography yourselves, or you have help with it? Do you have a coach?

MM: We mainly do choreography ourselves but with a huge help from our coach, who is the doctor Ruud Vermeij. He is a Dutch guy. He has not been such a successful dancer, but he has been a successful coach. He has had some successful dancers in his career and now he is busy with us.

TT: Joanna do you have a favorite dance?

JL: Yeah. Actually it depends a little bit. I think that my favorite would be Rumba, but sometimes I also enjoy Cha-Cha or Paso. It depends on the day, but my favorite would be Rumba.

TT: Do you know why? What attracts you to it?

JL: Just the emotion that you can show when you dance. I just like more of a slower dance than another one, you have more time to really show yourself, express your movement.

TT: You said that trust is really important to you in a dance relationship, what does that mean for you?

JL: In terms of partnership, the trust that happens between us, you can say technically when we dance. I can rely on Michael in some ways when we do figures, he has to partner me in a way that we can trust each other, so that is really important too.

TT: Is there also emotional trust, commitment?

JL: Yes, yes. It can be mental trust that you create through linking, and that linkage and emotional linkage, so all these as well. You have to build that trust and it doesn’t only rely on the steps but on much more than this.

TT: The personal relationship?

JL: Yes, as well.

TT: Do you have a favorite book?

JL: I really like “The Da Vinci Code,” it is quite popular. I also enjoy very much “Embracing Ourselves” by H. and S. Stone. And then I like biographies, like the biography of Nureyev.

TT: How does one get better? Obviously, in everything there is practice, but how did you get to this level?

JL: Well, you have to be committed to what you do. It is not only about practicing but finding a good team of people around yourself, with people you trust and people who believe in you, so you have some help from them as well.