ON THE CUSP OF A NEW NATIONAL TOUR WITH HIS WIFE AND BROTHER, ONE OF DANCING WITH THE STARS’ MOST ACCOMPLISHED COMPETITORS IS LIVING HIS AMERICAN DREAM
BY LAURA D.C. KOLNOSK
By the time he arrived on the set of ABC television’s Dancing With the Stars, Maksim Chmerkovskiy was already an international champion in the world of ballroom dancing. He and his competition partner at the time were ranked first in the United States and fourth in the world in Latin dance. Which is how DWTS producers found him.
“They approached me due to my official position in the dance world,” Chmerkovskiy recalled. “I was running a dance studio. The first time they called, I laughed and hung up the phone.” They continued calling. Their persistence finally paid off, and the soon to be celebrity joined the series in its second season. He went on to become one of the show’s most popular and compelling personalities.
Chmerkovskiy remained in the show’s professional cast until 2014, when he “retired” after receiving DWTS’ top prize the coveted Mirror Ball trophy with his partner that season, Olympic ice dancer Meryl Davis. He has since returned as a guest judge, and danced again in a subsequent episode. Using his global television exposure as a springboard, Chmerkovskiy has embarked on a range of dance related business and entertainment ventures.
Today, based in Fort Lee, the modern day Gene Kelly oversees an expanding network of Dance With Me studios with his brother and fellow DWTS alum, Valentin, and with Tony Dovalani, another DWTS vet. Chmerkovskiy, who has appeared on Broadway (Burn the Floor and Forever Tango) and in acting roles on television, is also a choreographer. He married another DWTS professional, Peta Murgatroyd, and they have a son, one year old Shai.
In 2018, Val and Peta will be joining “Maks” on a new national tour Maks, Val, and Peta Live on Tour: Confidential with more than 50 performances scheduled. Despite his hectic schedule, when we caught up with the energetic entrepreneur, he was generous with both phone time and candid, often heartfelt comments.
Chmerkovskiy repeatedly reflected on his journey from young immigrant to proud American citizen. When he arrived with his parents and brother from Ukraine in 1994, settling in Brooklyn, Maksim was already an accomplished competitive dancer. Starting when he was just four, his parents had enrolled him in an extracurricular activities school, and he was soon asked to join a new ballroom dance program. There were plenty of other activities, too, and Chmerkovskiy participated in tennis, soccer, swimming, and after school clubs.
“I remember my childhood being 100 percent busy because my dad wanted his kids to have zero free time,” he laughed. Young Maks opened his first dance studio in America at age 16. “We had no plan,” he said. “We were trying to figure out how to make it here and did the best we could.” Despite the school’s success, measured by steady enrollment and a notable number of champion dancers trained, it was not profitable. “We lacked knowledge of what goes into owning a business,”
Chmerkovskiy said. “I was doing shows in Russian restaurants, assisting with lessons, and teaching private lessons. We were just treading water. Many of our students were immigrant kids whose parents didn’t have money, and we weren’t the type of people who could pressure them for payment.” If those days are never far from the dancer’s mind, neither is DWTS and what the show did for his career. “It was a life changing experience, the opportunity to present myself for future endeavors,” he reflected. “We had 25 to 30 professionals on the show over the years. A few of us were able to generate positive play out of it in terms of having a career after Dancing With the Stars. That’s what I’m most proud of.”
The show elevated the dance profession further when it won multiple Emmy Awards.
“Prior to that, dancers on television were usually only backup to a headliner,” Chmerkovskiy noted. “Now we are stars in our own minds. It feels better. This is a hard physical activity. If you don’t train and get better, you’ll get stale or injured. Dancers must go through the same motions and sacrifices as football players, but we don’t have the same contracts they do.”
After DWTS, Maks and Val created their semi-autobiographical Our Way Tour, traveling to 45 U.S. cities in 2016. Although the show was an homage to Frank Sinatra and his music, the title had a dual meaning, also referencing the brothers’ own journey.
“Over 120,000 people came to see Our Way; we cherish that,” Maks said. “It’s important that people walk away knowing who we really are, with no confusion about our citizenship or that the United States has been our home for 25 years. That tour was the culmination of a lifetime of hard work, and the show my brother and I had been visualizing since we were kids putting on shows in the restaurants of Brighton Beach.”
For the new Confidential tour, Peta will join the brothers in an “emotional and inspirational” show in which the trio “draws upon their own family bonds, lives, and love stories.”
“We have set the bar higher and given ourselves more time to rehearse and produce,” said Val, whose memoir, I’ll Never Change My Name: An Immigrant’s American Dream from Ukraine to the USA to Dancing with the Stars (Dey Street Books) is slated for a March release. “The message is a universal one of love, family, and the amazing chaos that comes with it.” Peta, who made a cameo in the Our Way tour video and also appeared in Burn the Floor on Broadway, said she’s anxious to “perform a true love story” rather than act them out as she did during her DWTS days.
Her husband’s performance has also evolved. “This time I’m a husband, a father, in the best shape of my professional career, and still learning on and off the dance floor every day,” Maks, 38, said. “I’m eager to use my favorite medium to express what’s on my mind and in my heart. Television is great, but there’s nothing like the live stage and people looking at you from the audience.” The tour opens March 19 in Missouri and will visit cities across the nation before winding up in Las Vegas on May 16. The only New Jersey appearance is set for April 13, at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, but they will perform at Radio City Music Hall the following night.
Returning to Fort Lee “is always special for me,” Chmerkovskiy said. “It was my dream to live in that area, and I love it. I like to be close to the city for the energy. When you immigrate here and approach the metropolitan area on the plane, you see a magnitude of opportunity. I’ve fallen in love with Bergen County and New Jersey.”
He also enjoys the extra space and “sanity” the Garden State affords. Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich became a friend after he cut the ribbon at Dance With Me’s location there in 2013. Chmerkovskiy enjoys promoting the state.
“I’m always available to local government requests from Fort Lee and opportunities to represent New Jersey,” he said. “That answer is always a ‘Yes!’ ” The Fort Lee Regional Chamber of Commerce awarded the studio its annual Merit Award for making a “significant impact” on the borough.
In January, the Dance With Me network added a new location, in Austin, Texas. Four more are in the works, including in Florida and the Chicago area. In addition to ballroom and Latin dance, the schools offer the gamut for beginners on up: private lessons, group classes, social practice parties, private/custom classes, wedding instruction, and a wide range of styles, including contemporary, ballet, salsa, tango, jazz, hip-hop, and partner dancing. Showcases and competitions are hosted, event entertainment can be provided, and corporate and team-building services are available. In Fort Lee, instructors are certified by the National Dance Council of America, the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing, DVIDA, and Roll Call Wheelchair Dance.
Chmerkovskiy’s future plans include opening a theater to help others enter the dance world. Both he and Peta hope to act more, and he and Val plan an expansion of their brand.
“Your career is not about the cha-cha,” he said. “It’s about what you do after the cha-cha.”
Maks, Val, and Peta Live on Tour:
Confidential / maksandvaltour.com