THE TALK WITH MAKSIM CHMERKOVSKIY
photographed by Amaris Granado
ART DIRECTION JULIET BELKIN
STYLISTS OLYA DZILIKHOVA AND DARIA SHKOLNIKOV
HAIR KEEVA CLARK
Internationally renowned ballroom dance champion, choreographer and 15-time “Dancing with the Stars” pro Maksim Chmerkovskiy has quickly become one of America’s most watched and most beloved cast members of the ABC's #1 hit reality competition smash hit series. The Ukranian-American heartthrob, often affectionately referred to as the ‘bad boy of the ballroom,’ won the show’s coveted mirror ball trophy in 2014 and made it to the final round five times, with two runner-up and two third-place finishes. Not one to limit himself, Chmerkovskiy has also starred in the Broadway productions of dance shows Burn the Floor and Forever Tango and appeared on a number of hit television shows in the U.S. including a guest stint on “General Hospital” and the Netflix reboot “Fuller House.”
Chmerkovskiy began dancing at age 4 and eventually began competing in ten-dance, which includes both ballroom and Latin dances, quickly realizing his natural ability and talent for competition. After his family immigrated to Brooklyn in 1994, he rededicated himself once again to professionally dancing, competing in the International Latin category, where he ranked 2nd in the U.S. and 7th in the world among professional international Latin couples with his partner, Elena Grinenko. Today Maksim is spending a lot of time in Los Angeles filming the show with his wife and fellow “Dancing with the Stars” pro Peta Murgatroyd. The couple recently wed at the historic Oheka Castle in Long Island, New York and gave birth to their first son, Shai, in January 2017. The all-new season of Dancing with the Stars premiers on MONDAY SEPTEMBER 18, 2017.
Juliet: Was dancing always your passion?
Maksim: Dancing was definitely not my passion. It was nowhere near my passion. Not only was I not passionate about it, I was not good at it. In fact it was very discouraging in the beginning. Every ballroom dancing participant had this sort of like a dancing passport with all the dancing achievements stamped in it. At the end of each tournament or competition every participant had to walk up to judges and get their placement recorded in that book and stamped as verified. Once you accumulate points you move up in the dancing category. That's how it works. I vividly remember this one moment back in Ukraine, in the city of Kharkov at a competition, I was eleven or twelve years old . I sat next to a bunch of kids and we were exchanging our books. This twelve year old kid, whose book was filled with 1st, 2nd place looked at my book then looked at me and said , “Wow! No first places?! Not even one?!” I got so upset. I cried a little bit.
Juliet: Kids sure can be mean.
Maksim: I am thirty seven today, I am a father, I am a husband, I am accomplished, and I still remember this. And this is why I dance. I don’t want to make it sound like I am this inspirational speaker, no. The truth is, I got so pissed and it never left me. Ever since that incident, something in me always felt like I had to prove myself. There was so much effort put into this dancing thing by my parents, by myself, yes they pushed me, but I was physically moving legs, if I wasn't going to get some sort of an accomplishment, why was I working so hard for twenty years?
Juliet: I bet that other guy envies you today.
Maksim: I don’t think so, he comes from a very wealthy family (laughing). By the way, to make things clear, I never let it go. Years later when I was already living and dancing in USA I was traveling the world dancing with an Italian partner Samantha Togni. We placed 2nd at the Italian open and that kid placed 3rd. I remember him after the competition, he was destroyed and I remember being a jerk to him. But, guess what? We became friends. I think that experience only motivated me to be better.When I was growing up I wasn’t thinking Baryshnikov or Nuriyev, I was thinking cartoons, being a good kid and obeying my parents. I never questioned why I had to dance or play tennis, but I knew I had to be at the top, whatever it is.
Juliet: If you weren’t a dancer, who would you be today then?
Maksim: Anything else. I mean back then my mom signed me up for the swimming team. I remember there were tryouts for an Olympic team and I made it. I did not join the team because my family had to move. If I stayed, I would be an Olympic swimmer today. I would be a winner in any situation.
When I graduated high school in Brooklyn, I wanted to go to this magical place called Manhattan and so I chose to go to Long Island University LIU Pharmacy school in New York. It had the best pharmaceutical program in our area. Right now I am talking to you as Maksim Chmerkovskiy of Dancing with Stars only because LIU did not have a campus in Manhattan.
Juliet: When was your breakout moment?
Maksim: When I was 16 my dad and I opened a youth-oriented competitive dance studio, Rising Stars Dance in Ridgewood, New Jersey. My first teaching experience was at this school. For my very first lesson I had full class of 32 children from ages 5 to 17 . I remember all the parents standing by the wall watching their kids and observing me. Thank God I was same height at 16 as I am today. And although on the outside I had this demanding look, on the inside I was a nervous wreck. I had no idea how to start teaching. All I did before was assisted my coach, but now I am standing in a classroom of 32 kids. How do you start teaching?! A job of a teacher is a huge responsibility I tell you. I remember that moment like it was yesterday. I was ready to run to my dad and ask what am I doing here, I am not fit to teach. But I did it and the first thing I taught my kids was Samba basic on the wrong foot. (laughing)
My dad and I we worked so hard. We worked every single day. Even at New Years Eve, we were there. Although no one would come to class, I was committed, I was there waiting to teach classes. Then Dancing with the Stars came knocking, I thought to myself, 'Ok I have to try something different.' This fame today is all about Dancing with the Stars, but there was and is an extensive amount of work put into this success.
Juliet: Your brother Val and you have your own dancing school today, is that correct?
Maksim: In 2005 absolutely by accident, not knowing that I will join "Dancing with the Stars", we opened up dance studio for adults in New York. Today we have 11 locations. Dancewithmeusa.com is my company. We started the company with a mom of two of my students at the time, who became like family to me and eventually business partner. Another partner is Tony Dovolani whom you know from "Dancing with Stars" and who's been my best friend for the last 20 years .Tony has great background in social dancing. Another partner is an ex-student of mine and of course my brother Val. If someone was to come and interview all of us, it would be one hilarious story to tell how this successful business started. We are growing, 11 locations now. My goal is to have 300-400 school all over the world.
Juliet: Let's talk about parenthood. How does it feel to be a father for the first time?
Maksim: Well, last night I woke up at 5am because my son was crying. Even though we have a nurse (was the best decision to make for both Peta and I. No grandparents should be involved in every day upbringing of a child) we are very hands on. Peta and I are active parents. I cannot get Peta out of the house at times, it’s always baby this and baby that. But I am telling you, I am fascinated with this kid. For me not to be there every day of his life would be devastating.
I am not a morning person, it’s not something I can change. But 5am in the morning today, I got up with Peta. We came downstairs and we took our son to our bed and let the nurse rest. I am sitting there at 5am in the morning, thinking, look at me I am doing it and I am enjoying it.
I am proud to say that I will gladly be malnourished, underslept, just so my son is comfortable.
Juliet: Are there any other hobbies besides dancing?
Maksim: Those who tell you “Oh My God, my world stops when I dance”, I don’t know those people. I don’t know who they are. We are all normal people. I mean, yes we get fun out of it. I have fun dancing, I love busting a move and being good at it. I love the fact that when any music comes on, I can just grab any partner and dance. I mean you and me, when I spun your around, I loved the reaction. I get off the enjoyment my partner gets. I am not the snobby type, look at me I can perform 17 pirouettes, I can’t perform 17 pirouettes , but I can make you feel amazing. I am a leader and a follower. I am all about partnering, it’s about the feeling two people share. Dancing is about a relationship between two people.
My other hobbies include basketball, sports, taking care of my body, staying healthy. I want to be able to continue doing this to prolong my life and my career.
Juliet: Do you think you are where you want to be today?
Maksim: I am not where I want to be. I am grateful and thankful for what I have and where I am. But this is a step towards the goal and my goal is a financial security for my family and lifetime of happiness. I don’t have a goal of winning an Oscar, if I have an opportunity I will do my best. We all just want to be productive, better every step of the way right? I remember when we first came to United States, we walked into this empty apartment with a table a three chairs donated to us by Jewish organization. I was thinking at a time, why three? Which one of us will not be sitting at the table? And I remember Pops got up on the chair and wrote on a kitchen wall “We will survive!”. Underneath it he added “We will not survive, but develop.”
Our entire family today are so proud to admit that nothing was given to us, we earned everything by working hard.
Juliet: Let’s turn to fashion for the moment. Do you dress yourself? Do you let your wife do it? Or do you have a stylist?
Maksim: I let my wife do it. (no, not really) I have my own style. It’s casual. I try to color coordinate. I love denim. I love sneakers. Back in the day, when you only had 20 bucks to dress yourself, you had to be creative. I remember making a competition shirt for Val out of my grandmother’s shirt. Val had an amazing giant polka dot body suit made by me for his competition.
Juliet: Are you a big brand guy?
Maksim: I am a little bit of a brand guy. I love my designers. I have a specific body, not everything fits me design wise. I remember one of the first jackets that I bought was by Alexander McQueen. It fit me perfectly. It was unreal amount of money, but when I walked into the store and put it on, it was made for me, so I did buy it and wore it to many events. I think people need to feel good in what they wear, but they also have to be responsible. Nowadays if you put on shorts, flip flops, bow tie and a fedora hat with a feather sticking out, you think you are being creative. You are not being creative, you are delusional. The idea of style is so stretched out nowadays. People today think that they can throw different colors on because that is the way of expressing themselves. No, it’s not. You have to know basics of fashion. When I see another Instagram influencer, who is a.k.a some rich kid with unlimited money to spend on clothes, I always say you are not an influencer, you’re just a rich kid with clothes.
Juliet: What is your guilty pleasure?
Maksim: Good food. I am a huge foodie. I love when I am being cooked for by the best of the best chef. It’s like going to a theater and seeing phenomenal performance. Maybe I was a chef in past life?
Juliet: Favorite cuisine?
Maksim: My mom is the best cook I know. Her menu is huge. And she can be super creative like an artist with a palette and a brush. And it isn’t just Russian food. She always wanted us to have variety. As a result I love variety of food today. I love Japanese, good sushi, I love Italian, French.
Juliet: What is next for Maksim?
Maksim: Dancing with the Stars season 25 premiering Monday, September 18th. I like to find new ways to boost my immune system and stay active and healthy and so I partnered with LiveOnLabs. I began working with LivOnLabs a few years ago and is now a spokesperson/celebrity ambassador for the first company to bring Liposome Encapsulation Technology (LET) dietary supplements to market. Finally, I want to open dance schools in every state.
And with that, it’s back to the dance studio for Mr. Chmerkovskiy.
Text Juliet Belkin