I'll Never Change My Name
Val told me that he is writing a book and asked if I would write a Foreword. I knew nothing about what that even means, but obviously I said “yes” and have been thinking about it ever since. He semi-insisted that I read a few chapters before writing this, but I declined, because while this is one book I myself have been waiting for, I really don’t need to read it to know that everyone else definitely should. I can imagine what you all are thinking: “Obviously! You’re his brother and you should say only nice things, blah, blah, blah.” But if you really know me, you’d know how I refer to myself as “nothing but a traffic light.” I just say it how it is.
Val became my brother at age zero (I was only six) and became my student at around age ten (I was only sixteen, obviously). So you have to understand that our time spent being brothers was limited to sometime before Val’s puberty until sometime after he turned twenty-five. At that point he had a talk with me about how “he wasn’t my student anymore” and that I needed to recognize “the grown-ass, accomplished, proud man standing in front of me.” I will never forget that day. It’s the day Val “officially relieved me of my duty.”
I never asked to be anyone’s coach. It just sort of made sense. I would take a lesson for fifty bucks and then teach Val what I had learned. Simple and cost effective. Fifty bucks for a dance lesson at that time for our family was like stabbing yourself in the thigh with a fork. No permanent damage, but it hurts like hell. Again, I know what you’re thinking: “Okay, Maks, that is so dramatic!” But I assure you that every immigrant like us at some point had to part ways with fifty bucks for some “cha-cha lessons” and felt extreme pain, because that was like a tenth of the family’s net worth!
I was a tough coach. I had very limited time, no finances, and lots of personal crap to deal with because I was still a freakin’ child myself, but I loved Val so much and with so much passion that I wanted so much good for him. I did my best and coached the shit out of him and his partners! I will let Val tell you about his life as a competitive ballroom dancer, but I will only say that in our debut as a student/coach duo we managed to whoop some serious Juvenile Blackpool Champion ass (sorry, Mark Ballas, you know it’s all love, but it’s also all true).
Our parents’ favorite saying while we were growing up was, “When we die, you’ll only have each other, so you can never fight.” And we never fought. I may have, one time, sorta shoved him, but I wouldn’t remember and I would have to have been super pissed about something, because I could never inflict pain on him. We weren’t twins, but we were so close that I felt his pain every time he hurt. Which happened a lot. I mean, this kid could not stop either falling on his face, or getting elbowed in the face, or getting his bottom lip stuck in the wheels of a skateboard (I will let that marinate with you for a second, but it really happened). I also always had a near–heart attack experience whenever Val and his partner were waiting for a result of a just-finished competition. In hindsight I was a fool, because my guy almost never lost.
Vicariously through my brother I too am a multiple-time World Ballroom Latin Dance Champion and a whooping seventeen-time United States National Latin and Ballroom Dance Champion, I too am a Concertmaster Violinist in the Manhattan Music Symphonic Orchestra, I too am a poet, a rapper, an amazing point guard with a Shawn Marion shot, the bowler with the highest average that one summer, a rock-paper-scissors legend, and an impromptu-speech-giving god, but what you will find in the ensuing pages is that Valentin Aleksandrovich Chmerkovskiy is also a rare breed of a person due to an almost magical collection of life experiences.
I assure you that while you’re coming to an end of my Foreword, I too am coming to an end of reading it. Probably not my first time, either, half because I’m making sure I don’t sound stupid and half because I’ve probably read a billion Forewords by now and just want to compare “mine to theirs,” LOL. I’m sure Val will be diligent in explaining where our competitive nature and pursuit of perfectionism is coming from. I too am about to turn the page and read something fresh, creative, empowering, educational, without a doubt extremely well written, and definitely profound AF. So, without further ado, do yourself a favor and read this book.
P.S. You’re welcome ;).
I Am Valentin Aleksandrovich Chmerkovskiy
In the summer of 2016 I had just come off a national dance tour and was heading into my eleventh season as a professional dancer on the reality TV talent show Dancing with the Stars. The tour took me all over the United States with my older brother Maks, the two of us dramatizing the story of our lives. “Maks & Val: Our Way” told the saga of the Chmerkovskiy brothers, immigrating to the States from Ukraine and conquering the international world of ballroom dancing.
We had written and choreographed the show ourselves, and bringing it to towns in almost every one of the fifty states changed the lives of all those involved. Maks and I celebrated our adopted home of America through imagination and dance, and there was laughter at every performance, and tears, too, both on our faces and on the faces we saw out in the audience. We were welcomed beautifully and managed to connect with people from all corners of the country.
That summer politics dominated the American landscape. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders battled it out, and Donald Trump completely turned the political world on its head. Dancing in a show that honored love of our country, told through the eyes of two immigrant brothers from South Brooklyn, I traveled across the heartland during the full heat of the primaries, through the perfect storm of the party conventions, and amid competing barrages of partisan rhetoric. I felt like I was getting a crash course on democracy.
As if the news cycle wasn’t loaded down enough, that was also the summer of the Rio Olympics. Even there, politics and patriotism entered into the mix. Because of the European migrant crisis, refugee participants were given special status to compete. Some pretty astonishing figures broke through during that Olympiad, and among the most prominent were the U.S. women’s gymnastic team, the “Final Five” who brought home the team gold and collected a dozen medals in all. They were real-life superheroes—I was going to say they were like Powerpuff Girls on steroids, but in the sports world maybe that’s not the best way to put it.
The dance tour I was on with Maks took its final bow in San Jose, California. I flew back to the New York area, where my parents lived, where I grew up, and where I considered my true home to be. A friend of mine used to say that people should either travel the world or live in New York City, because it amounts to the same thing. After two months of total immersion in America, the urban streets felt alive and electric, and I just wanted to plug myself in again to the big-city vibe.
Dancing down the crowded sidewalks of Manhattan (actually, I walked like everyone else), I ducked into a corner bodega for a coffee, the kind that if you order “regular” comes with milk and sugar, served in an iconic blue “We Are Happy to Serve You” cup. The Olympics were winding down by that time, but on the flat screen behind the cash registers, the climactic moments of the women’s gymnastic events were playing out.
The team that year represented the best of America, the same incredibly diverse country that I had witnessed while out on tour. Laurie Hernandez, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, and Madison Kocian offered a rainbow of colors, backgrounds, and styles. They were in the midst of becoming the most dominant Olympic gymnasts ever, a lineup of super athletes that everyone in a politically divided country could get behind.
All the customers in the bodega, at least, were behind them, gazing transfixed at the TV screen. I’ve been a fan of gymnastics, an amateur fan if you will, my entire life. I glanced up and saw something that immediately caught my eye: a small-statured girl, very young, super charming. Beyond an obvious incredible athleticism, she had a special quality about her, a calmness in the middle of a pressure-packed situation.
The hard-to-put-your-finger-on-it essence came through in the way that she handled herself. She wasn’t just an Olympic athlete, but a little star. A lot of athletes want to be celebrities and celebrities were always trying to be athletes, but here was someone who combined the best of both worlds in one compact package.
“Damn, who is this girl?” I thought to myself. She was in the middle of a tumbling routine, and on one of her passes she did something I thought was amazing.
She found the camera. That’s how we say it “in the biz” when someone on TV breaks the fourth wall and looks straight into the lens. It makes for an instant connection. My mentor, Mandy Moore (the legendary choreographer, not the pop singer), had to work really hard to teach me the mechanics of finding the camera, because the move can easily look crazy and intrusive if overdone or done tastelessly. Well, this girl nailed it perfectly.
I vividly remember the moment I fell under her spell. She stuck the landing, raised her arms, and gave a wild, triumphant smile. From my time on Dancing with the Stars I knew the ability to find the camera was an essential skill for any performer. In one so young, that single move signaled some badass sass, as well as confidence and experience way beyond her years. It was as though she had winked at the whole scene, having fun with it.
I laughed out loud, shaking my head in appreciation. “Who does this lil’ girl think she is?” I was blown away. I couldn’t hear the commentary because it was a New York corner deli with a lot of noise going on, orders flying back and forth and sirens screaming by outside. But I remember the graphic coming up to identify the athlete.
“Lauren Hernandez, Old Bridge, New Jersey.”
I couldn’t help it, I called out, “Let’s go, Jersey!” New Jersey, my second home state behind New York. I knew Old Bridge, and had spent my teenage years in Saddle Brook. I felt a swell of pride. I wasn’t that deeply familiar with the world of gymnastics, but I had never seen many Hispanics among the ranks, so Lauren—everyone called her “Laurie”—was a revelation in that respect, too. This sassy Puerto Rican girl from New Jersey who could find the camera—well, all she was missing were the big hoop earrings and her boyfriend’s name on her necklace and she’d be singing, “I’m still Laurie from the block.”
“All right, Laurie Hernandez from Old Bridge, New Jersey,” I said to myself, “you got my attention, little star.”
Then I grabbed my coffee, left the store, and didn’t think anything more about it.
Dancing with the Stars matched professional dancers like me and my brother with celebrity contestants who were singers, actors, media personalities, entertainers, or sports figures. I had only a few days before the scheduled announcement about which couples would be paired off to compete on Season 23 of the show, which would premier in September.
As is the case in real life, on Dancing with the Stars no one tells you beforehand who your partner is going to be. The choice of dance partner had been made for me, and going into the season I remained in the dark.
In the days leading up to the announcement, the buzz among the professional dancers rose to new heights, with multiple texts flying daily, almost hourly. Everybody thought they had the inside scoop. The burning topic? Who was matched with which celebrity contestant.
“Who do you got? What do you know? I got this person, and I heard you got that person.”
I tried to stay out of the crossfire of gossip. I actually didn’t want to know who my partner was going to be. I preferred to be truly surprised when the revealing moment was taped, and if I knew beforehand I would have to fake my reaction. I’d rather be honestly disappointed than be dishonest with how I felt.
Whomever she was, I would be spending a very intense three months of my life with this person. We would be diving in deep—physically, emotionally, and even, yeah, spiritually deep, maybe as deep as two human beings can possibly get over the course of ninety days. Pretty damn deep, let me tell you.
The “first meeting” segments were like mash-ups of a blind date and an arranged marriage, with a little bit of a shotgun wedding thrown in, too. Normally they took place in Los Angeles, organized by Deena Katz, the show’s casting director, but at times they were shot elsewhere, for the convenience of the celebrity involved. The meetings were all done on camera. The producers liked to spring the news on the contestants with the videotape rolling in order to increase the drama. When we were finally introduced, our reactions were shot in close-up, to be broadcast so that thirty million people could dissect and debate every nuance of the match.
What partner I was assigned made all the difference. Would we be simpatico? Was she passionate about dance? Would there be chemistry between us? Season after season the first meetings made for a crazy, only-in-show-business challenge, but one that kept me coming back to the show every year. Not knowing made the process sweeter and more intriguing to me.
So I didn’t want to be told, but my dear brother Maks was determined to tell me. After more than twenty seasons on Dancing with the Stars, he was totally dialed in to all the backstage chatter.
“Deena gave me an address in New Jersey for my partner first meeting,” I told him.
“New Jersey, really? Hey, I know who that has to be. Bro, you got matched up with that Muslim chick, the fencer who competed in the Olympics, remember her? She made a big splash by competing in a head scarf.”
I did a quick Google search. “Ibtihaj Muhammad?” I said, mangling the name as I pronounced it.
“Yeah, Muhammad, that girl.” Maks laughed, considering the whole situation to be comical. “A Chmerkovskiy and a Muhammad doing the salsa—only in Hollywood!”
Deena took care of casting for the show, and wore a lot of other hats, too, acting as the liaison between celebrities and dancers whenever friction arose. She was the one who settled the dust and made sure everything ran smoothly.
On my way to the meet, she again got on the phone with me. “Listen, you’re meeting your partner later today and we’re really excited. Please call me right afterward and tell me how it goes. Oh, and stop in the parking lot when you get there and wait for the camera crew, because we don’t want to ruin the surprise.”
I followed the GPS directions through the wilds of New Jersey. Just before arriving at the address Deena gave me, I received a text from Shawn Johnson, the Olympic gold medalist who had been a winner on Season 8 of our show and then returned for Season 15. Even though we had never been paired up as dance partners, we built a solid friendship and kept in touch from time to time.
“Oh my God, I’m so excited. You better be nice to her or I’ll kill you. She’s like a sister to me.”
“Shawn,” I texted back, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I mean, Hi. How was your summer? I hope you’re doing well.”
“Oh my God—you mean you don’t know?”
“Oh my God, please don’t tell Deena. She’s going to kill me.” Shawn tended to kick off all her texts with “Oh my God.” I think she had the words programmed into her cell phone so they just automatically came up.
“All right,” I texted back. I was conflicted. I didn’t want to know, but I wanted to know. “I’m not going to blow the secret, but just tell me who it is.”
“No, no, I can’t,” Shawn replied.
At that moment I pulled into the parking lot at the address, a huge pole-barn-style gym in Monmouth, New Jersey. Maks had gotten the sport wrong. It wasn’t fencing, it was gymnastics. A big banner hung across the façade of the facility.
CONGRATULATIONS TO OUR LAURIE HERNANDEZ ON HER AMAZING JOURNEY IN THE OLYMPICS!
I took out my cell and texted a photo of the banner to Deena.
“Way to be discreet about the whole thing, but I promise to act surprised.”
That banner might have given me a hard-to-miss hint about who I’d be matched up with that season, but I would still be a surprise to Laurie. I had to sit in the parking lot for a half hour, waiting for the crew to mic me up. I thought back to the week before, recalling that epiphany moment in the New York corner deli where I saw her for the first time.
During the course of the Olympics, Laurie Hernandez had become the quintessential American girl. She was America, the way America looked right then. In my eyes, she was the spirit of the new reality in the country, the beautiful one I had encountered in towns all over the United States that summer while on tour with my brother. Laurie Hernandez, a new American heroine—or rather, a heroine for a new America.
I was about to embark on a journey with this superhero, and I thought, “Damn, that’s a huge responsibility. I better do a good job.” Laurie clearly possessed everything necessary to be a champion. At the same time, she was still young, just turned sixteen that summer. She had a maturity about her, for sure, but she still displayed a youthful presence. I thought it might be her eyes, so large, so full of energy, brimming with life and curiosity.
I would find out that Laurie could look down from her towering height of four eleven—or look up, rather—and those eyes, man, you would just sink into them. They spoke of innocence yet strength, pure humility through and through. Whenever I encountered a personality like that, I felt an overwhelming sense of wanting the best for the person, a need to help and protect her. I wanted to do all I could to communicate whatever knowledge I had accumulated, to provide her with all the tools from the huge toolkit that by then I’d been lugging around for over thirty years.
With every partner I had on Dancing with the Stars, women from varied backgrounds and wildly different paths in life, I tried to discover the overlap in our lives, attempting to plant our shared flag on common ground. What did I have in common with a sixteen-year-old Hispanic girl from New Jersey?
I thought of the journey Laurie Hernandez had experienced breaking into a world that in the past had never welcomed people who looked like her. Gymnastics remained very white, three-quarters white by a recent survey, with Latinos making up less than four percent of all participants.
“Si Dios lo quiere, to represent the U.S. as the only Latina gymnast would be such an honor,” she told the press before the games. “I feel I could be a role model to other Hispanic gymnasts interested in the sport, but I also want them to understand the importance of being focused, determined, and not giving up, despite all the struggles.”
Laurie must have had a hard time busting out of the box people wanted to put her in, perfectly symbolized by the white-black-Hispanic choices on the U.S. census questionnaires or the SATs. Going through the public school system, I had to fill out similar forms myself, with neat boxes for “White,” “Asian,” “Hispanic,” etc. For a long time I checked “Other,” because as a recent immigrant that’s how I saw myself. I wasn’t the white that I thought of as American white, I wasn’t black, I wasn’t Hispanic.
I was an “other,” an outsider, and maybe Laurie felt that way, too. In a lot of ways she was the most American kid I had ever met. She loved her church, her family, and her country, and she served all three very well. As brilliant as her achievements had been, I could hardly imagine the obstacles she overcame along the way, the folks stepping up to tell her that no, little Laurie from the block could not possibly do what she dreamed of doing.
In an odd way, we seemed to share similar battles of identity. She was a Hernandez, I was a Chmerkovskiy, but we had both carried the country’s flag with pride, standing on a champion’s platform to hear our national anthem. Not the national anthem of dozens of other potential countries that could have had their victories honored—no, it was our anthem, played for the whole world to hear because of our personal efforts on our country’s behalf. Her road to the honor was through gymnastics, while mine was by way of championships I won representing my country on the parquet floors of international dance competitions. But that was my past, and presently I was looking to the future.
Dancing with the Stars was a show all about renewal, about busting down barriers, breaking out of assigned roles, forging new identities. The celebrity athletes, singers, and actors who came on weren’t known for their dancing ability. They wanted to demonstrate that they weren’t just a football player, a pop star, or a face on a hit TV series. They were human beings capable of embracing a lot of different roles and fulfilling themselves as people in a lot of different ways.
Over the course of our season together, I would come to find out that Laurie and I had more in common than people might think. But at that moment in the parking lot, our time on Dancing with the Stars—an intense, wonderful, and rewarding period—still lay ahead of us. The sound techs signaled to me that they were ready to go, so I climbed out of the car and headed in to meet my new dance partner.
I’VE THOUGHT A LOT ABOUT MY EXPERIENCE WITH LAURIE HERNANDEZ recently, because I’ve been increasingly feeling restless over being labeled, boxed in, and pigeonholed.
I might be a Russian immigrant and Maks Chmerkovskiy’s little brother, and she might be Laurie Hernandez and an Olympic champion, but when we danced we were just us, just Val and Laurie. We blew up the assumptions people made about us, dismantled the boxes they shoved us into, and just generally had a blast, changing the world one dance step at a time.
If someone says of me, “Oh, he’s the Dancing with the Stars guy,” I have every reason to be proud. I’ve built a great relationship with the show, a relationship that first of all is about gratitude. It’s given me so many friends and so many opportunities that before anything else I have to say, “Thank you!”
But there’s a small voice inside me eager to disagree: “Hey, wait—I’m not just the Dancing with the Stars guy.” That can sound ungrateful, and believe me, I don’t mean it that way. Just like when I hear, “Oh, that’s the dancer dude.” Yes, I’m happy for anyone to say that, but there’s that same voice that rises up to shout, “No, I’m not just a dancer!”
I’m so many other things, too. I’m a poet, a boxer with a passable left jab, a classical violinist, a killer basketball player who loves hip-hop. I never want to be cornered by a description, never want to be boxed in, limited, defined. I’m proud of the variety, proud of the paradoxes, the weirdness, and the fact that everything I’m not is exactly what makes me who I am.
Oh yeah, that guy, he’s the ballroom dance guy on TV. When someone labels you, it means that they can stop thinking about you as a human being.
That’s why I’m writing this book. I want to show you the whole me, the real me, the one beyond all the preconceptions and stereotypes. We’ve all experienced being labeled and dismissed, and we’ve all felt the frustration of not being appreciated as a fully-rounded, independent individual. Who hasn’t peered out at society and muttered, “There’s more to me than meets the eye?” I knew that Laurie had told herself that, and then went out and proved it to the world.
Whenever someone typecasts me, my first impulse is to shrug it off, not to dwell on it, to keep it moving. In Ukraine, where I spent the first eight years of my life, I was stereotyped as a Russian because I spoke the language. But in Russia I was considered to be Ukrainian because I was born in Odessa. Later on, when I moved to America, Russians judged me as a person who left the home country, while to others I was stereotyped as a refugee, an immigrant. Not Val, not an individual who is complex, and who like all of us, has as many aspects to him as a mirrorball has mirrors—no, just another immigrant.
I am Valentin Aleksandrovich Chmerkovskiy, and I will never change my name, thank you very much. No matter how many times I say it, Chmerkovskiy will never sound less foreign, but that doesn’t make me less American. And it definitely doesn’t make me less proud to be one.
This book is about a different kind of patriotism, the kind that comes from the gratitude of the immigrant who pledged his allegiance to this incredible flag. It’s about all the steps I’ve taken to make it to where I am now, dance steps and other kinds of steps, and about all the connections I’ve created and bonds that I’ve forged on and off the dance floor, people who taught me more than I could ever teach them. It’s also about the promises that I’ve made along the way, many of them unspoken, pledges to family, teachers, mentors, and friends that their efforts on my behalf would never be taken for granted.
So that’s the journey I invite you to take with me in these pages. We will erase a few labels, explode some boxes, and have some fun in the process. With stories of love and family, and with insights such as how pride ultimately saved my life, I’ll seek to inspire you by showing how I was inspired. It’s a journey of fulfillment, exploration, and celebration. It just might help you on your own journey, or at the very least entertain you along the way.
Come dance with me.
In the summer of 2005, when the first season of Dancing with the Stars dropped, I remember that my initial reaction was simple and immediate. I rejected the whole idea. The formula of pairing professional dancers with celebrity partners, which was imported from a British program called Strictly Come Dancing, struck me as gimmicky and false. I feared the new show would do damage to the ballroom dance world that I loved, but which had always struggled with being taken seriously.
Ballroom wasn’t a goof for me. It wasn’t a game. I had been at it practically my whole life, and the art form as I knew it was as deep and powerful as that of more prestigious forms such as ballet, painting, sculpture, and drama. I had also been trained as a classical violinist, so I understood the aesthetic possibilities of a Mozart sonata, say, when compared with a finely executed paso doble, and I knew they could both tap into passion and humanity at the very highest levels.
Purely on a physical basis, I also knew the kind of dancing I was doing was an athletic activity as demanding and intense as anything else out there. All the common elements of athletics were present in ballroom—requirements of skill, competition, and fitness, as well as the real possibility of injury. Over the years an alliance of dance organizations lobbied to get our competitions officially classified as a sport. I was part of that movement, which rebranded ballroom as “dancesport.”
My dad, my brother, and I helped in the push to get dancesport into the Olympics. That was the level of respect I thought it deserved. By no means was I a revolutionary, but when it came to dancesport my family and I were certainly among the founding fathers. We felt that the combination of aesthetics and athletics was precisely what made ballroom dance special and exciting. In figure skating, perhaps, or ballet, you had a similar kind of artistic physicality, but ballroom enjoyed nowhere near a status comparable to those disciplines. Meanwhile, rhythmic gymnastics had been in the Olympics since 1984.
My father saw his sons as athletes first and artists second. Matching dance professionals with celebrities? Somehow it didn’t ring true. I doubt if anyone had ever considered doing a show with Michael Jordan teaching Michael Jackson how to do a layup. As a small community on the rise, ballroom dancers worked hard to give our art form a better reputation. Within that context, Dancing with the Stars seemed like selling out.
In the summer of 2005 I had just turned nineteen, and you have to understand where my mind was at that point in time. With my partner, Valeriya Kozharinova, I was dancing in ballroom competitions at national and international meets, and we were absolutely killing it. We had just won at the Blackpool Dance Festival, which was the oldest and in some ways the most prestigious ballroom competition on the international circuit, our version of Wimbledon. We also landed in the semifinals of the World Amateur Latin Dance Championship, and we were winning everything in the States that we could possibly win.
On the business front, too, the various Chmerkovskiy family enterprises were booming. There were four of us: me, Maks, and our parents. Our Rising Stars Dance Academy maintained its standing as the top children’s dance studio in America. The dance competition we hosted in Brooklyn, the Grand Dancesports Cup, was fast becoming the premiere competition on the youth dancesport scene.
Finally, our chain of Dance With Me studios—which was just starting up at the time—looked to be a wave of the future, both for the family and for the dance world in general. Right from the start, our Dance With Me social dancing schools offered the best of both worlds, featuring the heart of a family business combined with the execution of a Fortune 500 company. Under my father’s leadership, and in alliance with a powerhouse businesswoman named Jhanna Volynets, Dance With Me was proving to be ragingly successful, helping to put our family on a firm financial footing for the first time since we had arrived in America a decade before.
With all this happening, why would we bother ourselves with an upstart reality TV show on the West Coast? We were fighting the good fight on our own, and were too proud and too busy to drop everything in order to babysit celebrities in Hollywood.
But there was someone in our family who might have benefited from a little away time. During this period, my brother Maks appeared sullen and exhausted. He had to watch from the sidelines as a partner he had declined to dance with, Joanna Leunis from Belgium, rose to the top of the ballroom world. She had completely changed the life of the man she wound up dancing with, making Michael Malitowski one of the leading dancers in ballroom and winning the World Latin Dance Championship with him.
That could have been Maks. His opportunities with other partners dwindled away. My brother played all this over in his mind, not feeling a great sense of regret, necessarily, but definitely questioning where his life was headed.
Such was the situation within the Chmerkovskiy family that summer when the telephone rang.
Hello, Hollywood calling. They reached out to my brother first.
Hey, Maksim Aleksandrovich! Come on down!
It was like an invitation on The Price Is Right, a game show that was actually taped on the same lot as Dancing with the Stars. Later on, my parking spot at the studio would be two slots away from Drew Carey’s.
A gig on a popular TV talent show offered Maks an opportunity to shake off the blues, change his environment, knock down a solid paycheck, leave behind the responsibilities that had boxed him in for so long as a dance instructor and provider for the family—in short, he would be able to get away from the headaches plaguing him in our home base of New Jersey.
So of course he said no.
From his perspective, the decision was a no-brainer. Naturally he was going to turn down a project that paired up dance professionals with celebrities, because it might make a mockery of all that we had invested our energies promoting. He would not go Hollywood just for a bigger paycheck and a bigger audience. That’s the kind of move the Chmerkovskiy family considered a compromise, and we weren’t going to do that.
So thank you, but no thank you. We’re flattered, but we’d rather starve than eat a five-course meal on our knees. Righteous? Yeah, right—righteously idiotic! But very Chmerkovskiy-like. We thought we knew what we were giving up, and believed in our hearts that we were making the right choice.
I remember going over to a friend’s house on June 1, 2005, and watching the first episode of Dancing with the Stars, airing back then on Wednesdays on ABC in the 9 P.M. time slot. I was a boxing fan, and as I watched former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield massacre a fox-trot, I almost had to cover my eyes. The survivor of the infamous “Bite Fight” against Mike Tyson barely survived with his dignity intact. He left the show with no bite marks but potentially with a bruised ego.
I shouldn’t be too tough on Evander, though, because I found out later that he was the reason Dancing with the Stars wound up on the air in the first place. At the last minute—at the very last minute, according to what I’ve been told—Evander signed on, and ABC gave the program the green light. If Evander had said “No” to the show I’d still be back in Saddle Brook right now, teaching kids to cha-cha.
There were only six couples in competition that first ramshackle season, with soap star Kelly Monaco teamed up with a Belarusian-born dancer named Alec Mazo to win the first Mirrorball Trophy.
While there was some great dancing on the show, watching back then I wasn’t too impressed overall. I was still immersed in the more serious world of dance competition. As far as I was concerned, ballroom was a respectable sport, not something for the entire world to giggle about, witnessing some punch-drunk, one-eared palooka stumble around on the floor. Firmly seated upon my high horse, I could do nothing but look down on this new entry onto the ballroom stage.
In retrospect my reaction seems a little ridiculous. But we as a family made our decisions on an idealistic basis rather than on coolheaded cost-benefit analysis, and that strategy had always served us well. People were always tugging on my father’s sleeve with opportunities, wanting to use our success to further theirs. Dancing with the Stars represented only a minor blip on the radar screen. We were right to turn our backs on it, weren’t we?
How were we to know that the little reality TV import from Britain would blow up to be one of the biggest phenomena in American entertainment?
Success changes everything, and success in America, the land of success, sends an especially powerful message. Whatever the highfalutin, high-flying Chmerkovskiy brothers thought about the show, the rest of the country embraced it with full-hearted enthusiasm. The finale that first season brought in twenty-two million viewers, an incredible number for a broadcast television program that was just starting out.
Suddenly the picture swam into sharper focus. Did the Dancing with the Stars producers hold it against my brother for refusing them the first time around? Oh, when we were nothing but a summer replacement show, you turned up your nose, but now when our viewership is in the millions, you want to change your mind? No, the showrunners weren’t proud. They again invited my brother to come on the show as a professional.
“Hey, Maks!” said the producer on the other end of the phone call. “We’re interested in casting you for the second season. It’s going to be a ten-week gig this time around. Here’s the pay. [Insert the sound of a ringing cash register here.] We will put you up. We’ll take care of everything for you. We’re very interested in having you participate on our show.”
I would love to say that my brother politely declined, but his response wasn’t as polite as you would probably think.
Right at that moment we had a lot on our plate, operating both Rising Stars Dance Academy and our chain of Dance With Me studios. We had entered into the world of promoting ballroom dancing to an older generation, a nostalgic generation, people who could benefit from a physical, therapeutic, and mental perspective. Treat yourself to a dance lesson! was our message.
Strangely enough, we didn’t put two and two together right away. We failed to realize that the people we were trying to reach with our Dance With Me promotions were the same people who watched Dancing with the Stars. “Synergy” wasn’t a word that occurred to us, but what did mean something was that our beloved Maks remained down in the dumps. It didn’t make sense to us that he would decline a chance for a fresh start on a hit Hollywood show, doing what he had done at the highest level in competition. Seen from that perspective, Dancing with the Stars was a natural fit for Maks.
My father, mother, and I got together and staged something like an intervention. We didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was, because we were trying to blast Maks out of his funk.
“Maks, you’ve got to do it,” I said. “You’ve got to go out there, you’ve got to try this. Switch it up a little, you know? You only have to do one season. You’ll make a little money, enjoy a little bit of L.A., experience a change of scenery. Then you can turn around and come back home, you know?”
“No one will hold you hostage out there in Hollywood, will they?” asked my mother in Russian. “If the television show is not for you, then you do some other thing.”
“Yes, you can always come back,” my dad added. “You could come back and continue to dance in competition, but for now, you don’t have a partner, am I right?”
“It’s only three months,” I reminded him. “Actually two months, or two and a half.”
Not really realizing the impact it would have on our lives, the three of us kicked Maks out the door, onto the plane, and into a role on Dancing with the Stars. The move would come back to haunt us, because it immediately became clear that Rising Stars Dance Academy, for one, would never be the same without Maks as head instructor. He was the heart of that studio, with my father acting as the brain, and me and the other student-dancers serving as the soul.
I would take over the lead instructor’s role as best I could, but Maks’s pulling up stakes for the West Coast would have serious repercussions for all of the Chmerkovskiy family enterprises.
MY BROTHER WENT OUT TO L.A., AND A STAR WAS BORN. HE came, he danced, he conquered. In the winter of 2006, performing on Season 2 of Dancing with the Stars, Maks demonstrated that he had the ballroom chops, for sure, but he also exhibited another quality that made him a vital addition to the show’s cast of professionals—a ready-made masculine image that translated very well on TV.
Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the Russian bad boy of ballroom, Maks Chmerkovskiy! The cameras loved him. He came across as cool, impossibly handsome, and slightly dangerous, the kind of charismatic figure that viewers could spin fantasies around.
Now that we had an excellent reason to, my parents and I tuned in for every episode of the new season. As we watched, we fell in love with the show and came to admire the whole pro-celebrity concept. The production itself smoothed out the first-season kinks and became sleeker, better, and more professional. The number of competing couples increased from six to ten. The shakedown run was over. ABC had a smash hit on its hands.
Sitting in front of the tube in New Jersey, a continent away from the action in L.A., I looked on with amazement, pride, and a slight pang of jealousy as my brother came into his own. As a family, we had trouble believing what was happening, because for the first time our unpronounceable, ridiculously difficult last name crept into the vocabulary of the average American household. Emergency room visits for sprained tongues increased noticeably.
For his first season on the show Maks was paired with actress, singer, and celebrated beauty Tia Carrere. They made for a dazzling couple, combining the exotic and erotic in an explosive mix. When they danced, it was difficult to take your eyes off them. Tia gave off the vibe of a new, modern kind of woman, eager to regain her prematernity form after the recent birth of a child. She just happened to be matched up with a seething, strutting Russian-American stud, like a gazelle in the embrace of a panther.
Maks managed to make a hot show hotter.
On Dancing with the Stars, contestants lived with the constant presence of the camera. Early on that season, an incident occurred, caught on camera during rehearsal, that ignited controversy and at the same time cemented Maks’s badass reputation. Tia had just performed a move that Maks had taught her. After completing it, she looked over at her pro teacher in excitement and a sort of girlish pride.
“Hey, so how was it?” she chirped.
Maks looked lazily back at her, cynicism in his eyes and tough love in his veins, and with a slight tinge of sarcasm uttered a phrase that would be linked to him forever afterward, helping to define his character on the show.
“Well, you know what?” he said. “That wasn’t disgusting.”
The odd thing about the whole tempest-in-a-teapot affair was that for me and my parents, watching back in Saddle Brook, the moment passed by without us thinking anything about it. We didn’t even twitch, because that demeanor, that voice, and that attitude were all eminently familiar to us.
But to America at large, Maks’s behavior was such a shocking revelation, and it lacked political correctness to such a degree, that it came off like a slap in the face. He suddenly became “Maks the Knife.” Blunt honesty made for great viewing, especially when it was combined with my brother’s aesthetic. And of course his dance aesthetic was absolutely riveting, if I do say so myself—after all, we are related.
Along with everyone in our Rising Stars circle, my parents and I understood Maks so well, and his cold-hearted approach was so notorious among us, that the dismissive, offhand comment to Tia seemed to be part of just another day in the life of our favorite dance instructor. But the internet had come into its own at the time, and it didn’t take long for us to realize that the rest of the world didn’t see Maks in the same way that we did.
Well, that wasn’t disgusting.
What? Who in the hell treats a new mother that way? Poor Tia! Some viewers got angry. A few wept tears over the unfairness of it all. Others grasped the real truth of the moment, and reacted with comments along the lines of “If you can’t stand the heat, get off the dance floor.” The show’s website portrayed an audience split fairly evenly between those who were appalled by what they considered to be my brother’s vanity and bad manners, and those who applauded his tough-love approach to teaching.
Those were the days of chat rooms and discussion boards, before Instagram, Snapchat, or Twitter. Commentary about the show was pretty much limited to the ABC website. Visitors to the network’s web page had to choose Dancing with the Stars from the menu of ABC programs, then click on “Forums” to access the discussion boards. Digging into all the commentary from back in New Jersey, when I was still in college, I became aware of my brother’s popularity—or rather his notoriety.
I felt an overwhelming urge to demonstrate my loyalty. I didn’t limit myself to voting, either, nor to soliciting votes back home or getting my friends to call. I set up anonymous accounts on the boards so I could defend my man. I’d check the list of all the chats starting up. Invariably, they spelled his name wrong.
Max is so rude. Max is hot. Max is an asshole.
Whenever “Max is an asshole” comments started to outweigh “Max is so hot” comments, I would come up with subject threads to balance the negative with the positive. Trying to fit in and not blow my cover, I spelled his name wrong, too.
Max is so cool. Max is actually really nice. Max is special. Look at this picture of Max with puppies.
It’s not something I exactly brag about today, but bent over my funky Compaq computer in Jersey, I made the effort. I figured it was the least a brother could do.
Controversy was TV gold, controversy brought discussion board attention, controversy made the fans tune in. Love it or hate it, that’s just the way things were. So whatever else happened between him and Tia (they were eliminated sixth that season), Maks had proved that he was what they used to call “good copy.” All this arose from him simply being himself, doing what he had done every day at Rising Stars Dance Academy.
But then something occurred to temper the outrage and give the discussion board trolls a deeper understanding of my brother. For each contestant, producers on Dancing with the Stars created a “package,” short pretaped pieces about a dancer’s background, edited into miniature biographies. A package ran on Maks and his activities as a teacher at Rising Stars, showing him interacting with students. The collection of kids came off as absolute darlings, little men and little women who were accomplished pint-size terpsichoreans (I swore I would never use that comical, ancient-Greek term for dancer in this book, but there it is), and they charmed the pants off everyone out there in TV land.
Aw, maybe the bad boy wasn’t so bad after all. Just look at how his kids respect Maks and thrive under his guidance! Viewers saw another side of Tia Carrere’s tormentor, injecting a little Mother Teresa flavor into the mix. The package effectively rocketed Maks to star status, elevating his visibility among the corps of dance professionals on the show. He became a force to be reckoned with, not only as a dancer but as a personality, if not as an actual complicated, flesh-and-blood human being—which after all might be asking too much of reality TV.
The package on the Risings Stars kids lent Maks credibility that he wouldn’t otherwise have enjoyed. As much of a stud as he was, his arrogance would have never been accepted if viewers hadn’t been introduced to his heart, because arrogance without heart is just plain old obnoxious, which couldn’t be farther from what the Chmerkovskiy household was all about.
All of a sudden, this brash sex symbol who had been eliciting comments along the lines of “Who the fuck does this dude think he is?” instead showcased qualities of humility, leadership, and sacrifice. Maks’s genuine love for his young students was obviously reciprocated, producing an intense camaraderie that viewers could sense right through the TV screen. That same passion for teaching his students translated to how he taught his partners on the show, a fresh, unique, and above all genuine approach that people at home wanted to see.
I TURNED TWENTY THAT YEAR, AWARE OF A FEELING THAT things were snowballing. Because my brother’s life changed, my life changed, too. From the enthusiastic viewer response to Maks’s video package, the producers knew they had tapped into something special. They quickly reached out and asked if a select few students from Rising Stars Dance Academy could come out to California and dance on the show.
I made my first appearance on Dancing with the Stars, not as a pro dancer matched with a celebrity contestant, but as one of Maks’s former pupils.
In our little New Jersey studio, the invitation to come on the show hit us like a bomb. We sorted out three couples to make the appearance: including my partner, the feisty Valeriya and me; plus four others—Nicole matched with Boris, and Sergey paired with Michelle. We weren’t your typical Hollywood marquee names, but everyone involved had appeared in the package footage, representing the cream of the crop at the dance school.
The producers wanted us to come in with our dance numbers all set and ready to go. FedEx delivered tapes of two songs, Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” and the perennial favorite “Mambo Number 5.” We prepped routines for each, made recordings of them, and sent the videotapes out to L.A., so the producers could work out such details as blocking (positioning of the dancers) and camera placement.
When it came time to travel, the actual experience took on a slightly surreal flavor. The JFK-to-LAX flight was in itself a revelation to some of us: exciting, foreign, and fresh. We came away from the transcontinental journey thinking how immense America really was, because after six and a half hours on the plane, it would have made sense to us if we had landed in a different country. What? This is still the U.S.A.?
The beautiful weather and overall Southern California vibe sure made it seem as if we had entered into another world, a magical land where a car service picked you up at the airport and whisked through traffic. The producers put us into rooms at a boutique hotel right across from CBS Television City, the home studio of the show even though it aired on ABC. The studio has a long history, and everything from American Idol to Three’s Company and The Twilight Zone has been shot there.
The journey from Saddle Brook to West Hollywood ought to be measured in light-years. I grabbed on to anything that felt even vaguely familiar to my Brooklyn-raised senses. A block up Fairfax Avenue was Canter’s, the best New York–style deli in Los Angeles. In fact the whole neighborhood had something of a Jewish atmosphere, with places where I could get a good bagel, the old-fashioned food stalls of the Farmers Market, and—more sobering—the nearby Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.
We had an early call the next morning. The six of us walked across the street, received our ID badges, and made our way to the soundstage. Suddenly the exotic vibe of the experience totally dropped away for me, because the pros who were on the set that day were all dancers I knew well, people such as Tony Dovolani, Cheryl Burke, and Louis Van Amstel. These were colleagues who had history with me totally outside of any Hollywood bullshit that was going down. Being with them was like slipping into a warm bath of friendship, with my peers celebrating my arrival. I took my rightful place as a member of the extended family of ballroom dance.
And of course Maks was there, too. As he had my whole life, my brother bulldozed a path for me to follow on Dancing with the Stars. His presence was a huge blessing and at the same time something of a minor curse. I felt his love and protection, yeah, but I also saw myself slotted into the “kid brother of” pigeonhole that even back then was starting to feel confining.
I experienced a stab of envy and couldn’t wait until I entered that glittering world myself. I glanced around at the lineup of professional dancers, and a childish, petulant voice inside me spoke up.
“These guys are not even close to my level, but here they are enjoying an incredible level of exposure. More people see them in a single night than have watched me dance during my whole competitive career. What the fuck is that all about? Two years ago they might have been ranked maybe forty-eighth in the world, while I was out there winning every competition. Now I’m coming in as a sideshow? What am I, a worn-out shoe?”
It was an exciting time, with big changes afoot, and I, too, had to change with my circumstances. When you feel everything around you changing, you have a choice. You either try to cling to what you know best and stay put, or you sense the changing tide, feel the flow, realize the dynamic, and grasp the bigger picture. Then you can begin making decisions to grow and build, and continue your efforts to thrive, to function as an alpha in a new environment. “Keep it moving” was always a phrase I kept foremost in my mind.
I started to make adjustments starting from that first guest appearance in Season 2. The key to my success on Dancing with the Stars was not my brother’s advice, not anyone else’s advice, not my dancing ability or competitive experience, not my looks—though all that helped. I made a simple but crucial decision early on. The tool that helped most on the show was my ability to see myself as a student and have a complete lack of self-consciousness about it.
I’ve been a student my whole life. From violin, poetry, and dance to plain, old-fashioned education in school, I loved learning. My previous experience in ballroom taught me to check my ego at the door, and also allowed me to feel comfortable on the set. I kept myself open, and thankfully was secure enough that pride didn’t prevent me from being schooled in the finer points of producing great content.
I was able to say, “I don’t know anything about this business of staging dance on television, but I’m ready, willing, and able to learn.” My appreciative attitude toward those able to teach me went a long way to helping me fit in.
I was impressed, but I wasn’t intimidated. As I stepped onstage at Television City, of course I was somewhat nervous, but by that time I had a ridiculous amount of experience performing—though obviously none of the competitions could compete with a million-dollar production in the heart of Hollywood. But certainly the nerves I had going into my debut appearance on Dancing with the Stars didn’t come close to the nerves I felt at a world championship or a Blackpool championship, or even at the Russian restaurants in Brighton Beach where I performed when I was thirteen.
I’d been tested. I had endured my trial runs already. So for me the main emotion was not nervousness but excitement. The brighter the spotlight, I told myself, the brighter I’ll shine. I felt completely at home on that stage in West Hollywood. Mostly I simply enjoyed the time spent with my friends dancing before an audience of millions.
Among those in the audience were two people who would change all our lives. The actor George Hamilton, he of the perpetual tan, competed on Dancing with the Stars that season, paired with a professional dancer whom I knew well, Edyta Śliwińska. Hamilton was dear friends with Steve and Elaine Wynn, the casino moguls who together had founded an empire based on real estate, hotels, fine-art collecting, and gambling.
The Wynns watched the show to root for their friend George, and Elaine especially was charmed by the package on Maks and the kids from Rising Stars. Like a lot of people, she was inspired, but unlike a lot of people she had plenty of resources to act on her inspiration. After she saw the troupe perform, she reached out to my brother.
“We have a charity event coming up in New York City at Sotheby’s auction house, and we’d like to have your kids dance, perhaps something like a thirty-minute number.”
Of course we said yes. We put a show together and had our whole fam at the event, performing for an audience of heavy hitters, not only the Wynns but Italian fashion designer Roberto Cavalli and Donald Trump (then just a real estate magnate). Steve Wynn fell in love just as his wife had. They ended up hiring us to do New Year’s Eve showcases at the Wynn casinos in Las Vegas for the next three years.
The Rising Stars troupe swelled in number. New Jerseyans Cole Mills, from Oceanside; Kiki Nyemchek, from Teaneck; and Vlad Kvartin, from Fair Lawn, whose immigrant status was an open question, all got put up in luxury rooms at the Wynn Las Vegas. They did charity events and met such humble folks as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
The cherry on top of the sundae was when Steve hired the whole troupe for the 2006 grand opening of Wynn Macau, a new casino on the southern coast of China. The Rising Stars kids were the whole show. Wynn flew fifty teenage dancers from New York to Hong fucking Kong. These kids had never seen anything like it. The closest they might have gotten was an order of sesame chicken at their local Chinese takeout, and they would be disappointed to discover that the dish wasn’t normally offered in the actual nation of China.
During this period, having Maks in my corner meant everything for me. No longer forced to put up with the misery of being a brokester working his butt off and being only poorly compensated, he could now afford to toss a few coins my way. Because I was still a broke-ass dancer scratching out an existence in the competition world, I appreciated the favor.
More impressive than the money, though, was having doors open to him in the incredible, weird, over-the-top vanity fair of show business. Maks was twenty-six years old, a stud, and on the biggest TV show in the country. He ran through Hollywood like a kid through a candy store. Dancing with the Stars had suddenly blown up into such a huge phenomenon that when Maks showed up at a party he was bigger than half—90 percent!—of the celebs in attendance.
Man, it was a crazy time. Overnight, my brother went from being a fucking nobody ballroom dancer in New Jersey to becoming the hot new face in entertainment. Everybody wanted a piece of him.
Through all of this I experienced the first small beginnings of an upheaval in my relationship with my brother. It was nothing too pronounced, but I could feel a tremor as the earth shifted beneath our feet. Maks and I were now living a continent apart. He had always been my rock, and the thing about a rock is it isn’t supposed to change. I was so busy changing myself that I never stopped to imagine that my brother could become someone different than the person who had been at my side for so many years. At that point I was only faintly aware of what was starting to happen, but the real sea change would wash over our lives soon enough.
It took me a while to join the cast of Dancing with the Stars. I had a couple of appearances here and there, some more memorable than others, but I was in my own world and had my own thing going on. Though the show became a huge phenomenon, it wasn’t central to my life, since I was heavily involved in the world of ballroom dance competition, and that’s where my focus was. But it was a nice treat to get away and spend some time in the weird, wonderful realm of Hollywood. As it turned out, I didn’t sign on to the show as a professional dancer until 2011, for Season 13—at age twenty-five, the same age Maks was when he started.
I have nothing but the deepest love for my older brother. He means more to me than I can express. When anyone refers to me as “Maks Chmerkovskiy’s kid brother,” wow, I feel a surge of happiness and respect. But again, that small inside voice kicks in. Hey! I want to call out, I’m not anyone’s kid brother. Well, I am, but that’s not all I am.
I’m not some sidekick and I never set out to be Robin. I am Batman.
And yet my first sound bite on my first season as a pro, the first time the audience encountered me as a member of the cast, set the snarky, stammering tone.
“I’m Valentin Chmerkovskiy . . . no, wait . . . I’m Val—no, no . . . I’m Val Chmerkovskiy and it took my brother twelve seasons to try to win this thing and he still hasn’t done so, so I’m here to redeem the family name.” It was probably one of the most obnoxious things I’ve ever said, and I’ve said a lot of obnoxious things in my life. As a green-as-grass rookie, I was not aware that sarcasm didn’t play well on TV. The show wanted sound bites, punch lines, and catch phrases, so I went ahead and made my first impression on the show, coming off like a snotty little douchbag.
Maks’s fans jumped all over my trash talk. What they were reacting to was banter, nothing more, just playful sarcasm. The simple fact that there was now a pair of brothers dancing as professionals seemed to challenge some people. A tiny fraction of the commentators were off-the-hook fanatical, and they were extremely active in the show’s forums and on other social media, posting comments daily. They were not always the nicest comments, either, and at times strayed into bullshit slander and totally whack opinion.
A few of the online posters came off as rancid little trolls, more interested in tearing other contestants down than building their candidate up. It was a losing propostion, but there were times when I could not resist baiting them back. “Hey, yo,” I would post, attempting to give the crazies a reality check. “I’m standing right here with your main man, your hero, and we’re laughing at you together, at how truly insane extreme your comments are.”
Unfair and silly as it was, the fan base broke down into rival camps, the true-blue Americans versus the foreign immigrants, and I’ll let you guess who led the list of the outsiders. The Russians were coming! The dark and deadly Chmerkovskiy clan! The show will turn into Dancing with the Czars!
My celebrity partner that debut season, Elisabetta Canalis, had a career in Italy as an actress, spokeswoman, and model. Elisabetta was a beautiful person, stunningly pretty, who spoke English with a sweet and sultry Italian accent. She had long served as a muse for fashion designer Roberto Cavalli, but in 2011 she was most well known for going through a very public breakup with superstar actor George Clooney.
Talk about being labeled: none of Elisabetta’s credits, nothing about her sophisticated, statuesque European aura mattered, because all people saw when they looked at her was Clooney’s ex.
A season on Dancing with the Stars was actually an excellent way for celebrities to push the reset button. Athletes, actors, singers, and media personalities could come on the show and display sides of themselves that the public never saw.
The producers participated in the same stereotyping as the rest of society, but the smartest celebrity contestants found a way around that, playing ball to some extent while at the same time not taking their public images too seriously. A sense of playfulness was required. Elisabetta found herself with an awesome opportunity to slip out from underneath her ex-girlfriend label and present herself as herself.
Unfortunately for her, she drew me as a professional partner.
I walked into the first meeting with my celebrity partner to find a drop-dead beautiful Italian woman. Elisabetta Canalis obviously didn’t know me from a hole in the wall, and I came to understand that she had never really watched the show before committing to appear. And I repeat: Elisabetta signed up for Dancing with the Stars without having ever watched the show.
It was the blind leading the blind. I had zero experience as a Dancing with the Stars professional partner. My brother’s advice and opinions could guide me, but for better or worse I was determined to make my own choices. Even so, I always felt Maks’s presence, as if he was looking over my shoulder at everything I did. There were four people in the rehearsal room, two flesh-and-blood humans, me and Elisabetta, and two ghosts, Maks and George.
Feeling the need to prove myself, I shifted immediately into alpha mode. I was coming in totally energized, not arrogant—I mean, I was grateful to be there—but maybe a little bit too cocky. I carried my experience in the competitive dance world as a badge of honor. I might not have spoken my attitude in words, but to the other professional dancers it must have come through loud and clear.
“Look, you little fuckers haven’t been on a real dance floor in years. I’m an athlete! [insert chest thump] at the peak of my physique! [and another] I can dance ten dances in a row and not break a sweat. Y’all can probably not do two routines without wheezing and puking!”
I was ready to teach whoever I got as a partner how to become a world champion ballroom dancer, while in front of me stood a woman who had no idea what she was getting into. Elisabetta was certainly cool, smart, and pleasant enough, but as far as she was concerned, we could have been doing Nunchucks with the Stars.
“I’m excited to learn how to dance,” she said, in a cool European tone that indicated Elisabetta never got excited about much of anything. People got excited about her, not the other way around.
We were at completely different stages in our lives. She was shell-shocked after being dragged through the media muck for a few months, and I was this peppy little upstart puppy nipping at her heels. We started working together and, yes, she was without a doubt an awesome chick, but dancing was hard for her.
In fact, dancing was really, really hard for Elisabetta Canalis.
I’ll take the blame, all right? My style of teaching wasn’t making the process easier. I should have told myself that with only three weeks to teach her how to dance, I had to accept how vulnerable she seemed and acknowledge what she could and couldn’t do. I had no patience for insecurity and was so driven to succeed that I overplayed my role a bit. I still had the competition perspective in my blood. I thought I was back teaching at Rising Stars Dance Academy, where tough love was the order of the day and no coddling was allowed.
I went into the rehearsal period full steam, and my attitude caught Elisabetta off guard. So about a week and a half in we had a little moment, she and I, caught on camera and pretty much summing up the state of our relationship.
We were rehearsing the quickstep, a fast dance that was really difficult to learn and even harder to get right. I mean, it’s called the quickstep, right, so I think the difficulty should be pretty self-explanatory right from the start. Elisabetta might have noticed that my fashion sense was way off. I dressed like the sixty-year-old ballroom dance teacher I had worked with two years before in London—shout out to Alan Fletcher! Elisabetta’s fashion guru, Roberto Cavalli would have shuddered and hid his eyes.
“Quick, quick, slow!” I called out. We were already halfway through the rehearsal process, dancing wasn’t getting any easier for her, and my tone wasn’t getting any brighter. I wasn’t gloomy and I never belittled anybody, but at that point in time, I didn’t place as much value on uplifting rhetoric, because I was so accustomed to using challenging rhetoric. I thought that if I pushed my students, they would know that I cared, because I was challenging them to surpass their expectations. The people in the world that I came from, the world of dancesport, knew never to take it personally.
But George Clooney had never talked to Elisabetta like I was talking to her. Nobody in their right mind would have dared to talk to this woman that way. She was a big star in Italy, where people walked on eggshells around her, the way they behave toward A-list celebrities in the States.
“Quick, quick, slow! Quick, quick, slow!”
“Hey, hey,” she muttered, rolling her big, beautiful runway-model eyes at me. She didn’t understand what I was doing, and didn’t feel it either. At that point, she didn’t even want to feel it. Instead of trying to make her understand, I should have focused on an easier dance step that would maybe help her enjoy dance in general. At least that would have represented progress, after which she might gradually come to understand what we were trying to do.
I spun around, demonstrating. “Quick, quick, slow. Quick, quick, slow.”
“I still don’t understand,” she wailed.
“Quick, quick, slow. Quick, quick, slow. Quick—”
“Show me again,” she ordered, cutting me off. “Show it to me again.”
Those were her words, but what I heard in my head was something different:
Dance, monkey, dance!
I had an image of me as a Blackpool champion, standing there in front of a woman who’s, what? George Clooney’s ex? Someone who’d had a bit part in Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo?
I turned to her and said, “You know I’m not your bitch, right?”
Whoa, whoa, double whoa.
She rolled her eyes and said, “What?” She was appalled. “What did you say?”
“I’m out here trying to make you look good,” I said, trying to justify myself. “I’m here for you.”
“Not for me!” she responded, then started gathering up her things, all the while muttering curses in street-slang Italian.
The camera caught it all, and even though the producers wound up editing out my “not your bitch” line, viewers got the idea. Obviously, we made up after that day and let bygones be bygones. But the damage had been done. Our rehearsal package aired in week two and not too coincidentally we got eliminated from the show that week, also.
Like I said, I’ll take the blame. I wasn’t good at communicating within what was a new environment for me. I had a lot of learning to do.
But actually, that early elimination might have been the best thing that ever happened to me on Dancing with the Stars. It not only ended the agony, but it meant producers could assign me to perform as a solo dancer on featured pro numbers. I was able to demonstrate what I was actually good at, which at that point was dancing. What I wasn’t good at (not yet) was guiding a celebrity partner.
I busted my ass showing what I could do. I was already looking ahead to the next season, and knew I had to find a way to stand out. On the basis of my miserable showing with Elisabetta, I wasn’t sure that I would be asked back. So I pulled out all the stops as a dancer.
Some of the pros allowed their feelings to get hurt when they were eliminated. Their egos kicked in and they would turn their backs on the remaining episodes of the show. They didn’t want to perform in the precommercial “bumper,” they didn’t want to do the thirty-second filler, and they didn’t want to do a performance for a visiting guest artist.
I had a different attitude. “Yo, I just left my whole world to be on this show! Give me as much camera time as possible!”
Unlucky Season 13 of Dancing with the Stars featured celebrity contestants such as Ricki Lake, Rob Kardashian, and J. R. Martinez, who won with an overwhelming number of viewer votes. Chaz Bono’s appearance triggered protests from conservatives because he was transgender. NBA forward Metta World Peace partnered with my brother’s future wife, Peta Murgatroyd, who was taking her first turn as a pro dancer, but Metta and Peta were the first couple to be eliminated.
Season 13 also featured a week-six exchange between my brother and the judges for which I might have been at least partly to blame. He and I stood together watching the couple going on before him, and it bothered us both when their routine received extravagant praise from the judges, totally overblown for what Maks and I considered was at best a mediocre performance. So he vented to me a little about the cluelessness of the judges.
Bitching about the adjudicators was a time-honored ballroom tradition, so I joined in on the trash talk. Instead of calming him down, I acted as a catalyst for his outrage, getting him even more hyped up than he was to begin with. He went out and did his number with his partner, Hope Solo, the famously fiery goalkeeper for the U.S. women’s soccer team. It was “Broadway Week” on Dancing with the Stars, so they performed a rumba to “Seasons of Love” from the Broadway show Rent.
When judge Len Goodman came down hard on Solo (“This was your worst dance of the season, in my opinion”), Maks reacted. Waving his arms over his head, he encouraged the crowd to boo Goodman’s comment—which they did, enthusiastically.
Goodman: Don’t start all that, Maks, because half the fault is yours.
Maks: As long as the audience likes our journey, we’re good.
Goodman: Let me tell you, Maks, the audience likes the effect. They judge on efficacity. I’ve been in this business for over fifty years—
Maks (under his breath): Maybe it’s time to get out.
Judge Carrie Ann Inaba spanked Maks for his dis of Goodman (“Have some respect!”), so there was plenty of leftover tension when host Brooke Burke did the post-routine interview. She asked my brother how he felt about the scoring. He voiced his disappointment, then added a comment heard around the Dancing with the Stars world.
“With all due respect, this is my show,” Maks said.
All microphones should come with a warning label, “Use of this device by Maksim Chmerkovskiy could result in injury or death.” He was notorious for his “that wasn’t disgusting” style of off-the-cuff comments. I knew exactly what he was trying to say—that the dancers were responsible for the show right alongside the hosts, judges, and producers. It was indeed “Maks’s show” as much as anyone else’s.
But that’s not what America heard. Viewers misconstrued the comment as typical “Maks the Knife” arrogance. The discussion boards and commentary threads lit up. No one wanted to cut this well-meaning, English-as-a-second-language dancer a break. Maybe he couldn’t express himself perfectly, but his heart was always in the right place. In protecting Hope he was only expressing his loyalty to a teammate.
It wasn’t much, but within the closed system of Dancing with the Stars, the whole business qualified as a major dustup. I felt bad, because I had fired my brother up, and he said things he probably wouldn’t have said otherwise. We were like kids on a playground. You act a little differently—and talk a little trashier—when you have your boy backing you up.
DURING MY DEBUT SEASON I EXPERIENCED THE BACKSTAGE chatter at Dancing with the Stars for the first time. I knew a lot of the professional dancers, so I wasn’t a total outsider. Not much that was being said surprised me, since the talk was the familiar routine about aches and pains, the opinions of judges, and who was an item and who wasn’t. I thought I was back in the sweaty changing rooms of the competition circuit, or in the cafeteria at high school. The environment may be different but people were the same all over.
I did get introduced to something that was new to me, though, an ongoing discussion among the Dancing with the Stars pros—not a debate, really, more like a sore topic that everyone kept revisiting. The question centered on who had it easier, the female professionals who were teaching male celebrities, or the male dancers, like me, who taught female partners?
That there was any question on the subject took me by surprise. To me, the answer was ragingly obvious. Of course the male pro had a bigger challenge, simply due to the nature of ballroom dancing.
In the pure, original, authentic tradition of ballroom, the dynamic between male and female partners was extremely well defined. The woman was the work of art, while the man served as the frame for that work of art. The man’s job was to present his partner in the most ideal manner possible. The female carried the heaviest load and was the focus of the spotlight. The role of the male in the ballroom dance world, the authentic ballroom world, was to complete her in every way.
The woman had much more work to do, much more business to attend to, than the man ever would. There’s the famous line about the difference: “Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, but backward and in high heels.”
I would be the first to tell you it was a lot easier to learn how to be a male ballroom dancer than it was to be an effective female ballroom dancer. I didn’t think anyone could seriously deny that, but I got plenty of pushback from the women pros on the show. With the celebrity contestants, they said, the assumption was that a man couldn’t dance and that a female could. Plus men were clumsier than women, men were awkward, and men were harder to teach because their egos got in the way. I could see the women’s point, but I wasn’t buying their argument.
Look, I can furnish a simple example of the double standard in ballroom. A male celebrity dancer could spend four-eighths of a bar of cha-cha music—a bar being one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, and . . . eight!—just unbuttoning his shirt, then spend another half bar taking his shirt off.
Afterward he could throw in a pelvic thrust and maybe, depending on the song, whip that shirt around his head and throw it at the audience, ending up with a “New Yorker,” posed with an arm raised high. The judges would score the male dancer’s routine, the audience would love it, and people watching at home would praise the energy and excitement, with comments such as, “Oh my God, that was my uncle’s move at the wedding!”
Meanwhile, what was the female of the couple up to? She couldn’t just stand there and watch the male take four-eighths of a bar stripping his shirt off. I knew I could never leave my partner stationary, have her stand there smiling like a mannequin while I ronde around her, do two spins by myself, hold onto her, and then do a dip while she does her New Yorker. For a female to do what a male did simply wouldn’t make sense.
In authentic ballroom the woman dancer is always absorbed in movement. She has much more to do than the man. Girl pros on the show did incredible moves by themselves and finished by themselves, only to have the male celebrity next to them strike a pose and shout, “Yeah!” The camera zoomed in for the guy’s triumphant moment. Take the same choreography and reverse the gender, and we would have the male celebrity flying around doing crazy spins, stopping, and hitting the line, with the female pro doing the “Yeah!” moment.
The whole essence of ballroom dancing—as opposed to, say, solo tap—is that men and women dance together. We are creating with each other.
Who has it easier? The question reminds me of Zeus and Hera in Greek mythology, debating over who took more pleasure from sex, males or females. Zeus said women did, while Hera said men. Luckily they had someone who could settle the question with authority. The prophet Tiresias had spent some years as a male and then other years as a female (don’t ask me to explain how, even though I do live in West Hollywood), and he answered that it was women who had the better time of it.
Did that end the debate? Nope. The conversation continued, just like ours did about whether male or female pros had the harder time on the show. I had my own opinion, but no one was interested in the new guy on the show putting in his two cents. So I just kept it moving and agreed to disagree.
AS THE SEASON PROGRESSED I REALIZED I HAD TWO JOBS, dancing well on the show and slipping out from the shadow of my big brother. During the period when he was toiling away season after season on Dancing with the Stars and I was killing it on the competition circuit, our dynamics had shifted, and I wasn’t sure Maks was aware of that fact. I had become a different person from the one he had known so well before, and he had changed, too.
The years he had been in Los Angeles had affected us deeply. While I concentrated on competing, our lives took separate tracks, his on the West Coast, mine on the East. We saw each other often, but not as much as we used to. In his absence, I stepped up to be the man of the household whenever my dad was away. I had the impossible job of trying to fill my brother’s shoes coaching kids at Rising Stars.
Now, signing on to Dancing with the Stars and entering into what had been Maks’s exclusive arena, I didn’t want to give up my newfound independence. I couldn’t change the fact that Maks had been introduced to the show long before me. I couldn’t help that audience members saw him first. I had to demonstrate to them that appreciation was not a zero-sum game, that people could appreciate me for being me, while still leaving enough space in their hearts to appreciate him for being him. My brother and I had to coexist and not lose our individuality, which took a lot of effort for a long, long time.
By the time I joined Dancing with the Stars, Maks had become jaded. He was more or less over it. He was a veteran of eleven seasons. Never once did Maks not give his all in a performance for the show, but I detected some of the old Russian gloom beneath the surface, a bitterness and tension. Something was bothering him. Perhaps his agitation was warranted, but I didn’t see addressing it as my battle.
From the beginning I filtered his advice on how to survive on the show, separating the good from the bad. There was good, productive advice that I could use, unproductive advice that I couldn’t use, and there was also productive advice that I chose not to use.
Ultimately, as much as you learn, as much information as you take in, and as much influence as you allow to shape you, you’re the decision maker. “I’m the decider,” as President George W. Bush said. Owning your decisions is the only way you fully insulate yourself from regret. When you allow someone else to make your decisions for you, that’s when things can go south in a hurry. Maks had a different attitude toward the show, one that I didn’t want to adopt just yet. I needed to go through my own growing pains, my own honeymoon period, and my own fed-up, disappointed period, too. I had to find my own gray clouds and my own silver linings. I didn’t need him to hold my hand the way he had done in Odessa, in Brooklyn, and beyond.
They say you become an adult the instant you forgive your parents for whatever wrongs you imagine they’ve done to you. There was nothing for me to forgive with Maks, but I still had to fight my way out from his shadow.
I don’t know if people realize how addictive the spotlight is, especially when you work so hard for it. Then it’s the sweetest piece of cake you’ve ever tasted. The more you have to divide that piece, the harder it gets to share, and you find yourself wanting the whole thing. Being forced to split it with eleven other diva dancers creates a lot of intrigue and tension. Sharing the spotlight with a sibling has its own tricky challenges, working out to be great and awkward at the same time.
On Dancing with the Stars, everybody was a star. Hollywood itself was a town of big fish coming out of small ponds, and a few of the biggest fish gobbled up all the attention. But I was determined to get my head on straight, forget about my past success on the competition circuit, and consciously became the humblest pro dancer that had ever appeared on the show.
I had bombed out with Elisabetta, so I had nowhere to go but up. To get there, first I had to get myself invited back for the next season.
Dancing with the Stars has spring and fall seasons every year, and the period of time in between them is called the “midseason.” What people may not realize is that none of the professional dancers are guaranteed a spot on the show. The producers like to keep us in suspense until the very last minute. We find out we’ve been picked up only the day before we have to pack our bags and head back to work.
In defense of the producers, they are simply real people wrestling with the monumental task of coming up with the perfect mix of dancers for a million-dollar show. I came to see such last-minute dramatics not as an example of the cruelty of the world, necessarily, but simply as an indication of how show business worked. All the pro dancers signed a deal that gave the show priority in their lives, but it didn’t work the other way around—the professionals weren’t the main priority for the producers. Ratings were.
Us dancers were mere cogs in a machine run by the higher-ups. I didn’t hate the players even though I might have disliked the way the game was played. I tried to keep my mind off the drama of whether I’d be re-signed and spent the midseason going about my business.
At that point, I wasn’t reaping the fruits of my labor. I had stopped competing and came onto the show, only to receive a slap-in-the-face reality check. After that first season I returned to New York down but not defeated. I told myself that even a faltering move forward is still a step in the right direction.
I discovered my situation at home had changed a little. I couldn’t go back to my work at Dance With Me studios and do it anonymously as I had in the past. Without realizing it I had become something like a D-list—no, not even a D-list—I had become a G-list celebrity. I wasn’t a B, a C, a D, an E, or an F. I was stuck farther down the alphabet.
To my surprise I found that even G-list celebrity status translated pretty well in the suburbs. In America, television made things real. I now had a wider audience appeal than I had enjoyed before, and when I did a seminar at our Dance With Me studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, for example, I’d attract not just the school regulars, but also some outside fans who wanted to stop in for a sniff. G-list was A-list in Fort Lee.
All the talk about the big payoff for joining a hit TV show was great, but it wasn’t the money that was inspiring me. I’d been broke for years before that, and had always been happy as hell. I was after something else in Hollywood. I never wanted to be a little G-list bitch for anybody. That just wasn’t my style. I came off the competition circuit as an alpha individual who had gained not just notoriety but respect. I wanted the same result from Dancing with the Stars.
And then a development came along that crystallized everything, allowing me a crucial bit of insight into myself. That midseason in 2013, at an event held in an Irish pub on Long Island, I was introduced to the concept of the meet and greet. The bar had dark wooden paneling and smelled of sweat and beer. I showed up to find a crowd of people who really, really wanted to hang out with me. I was astounded. G-list or not, I was able to attract a group of strangers willing to pay money to stand in line, have a picture taken, and engage in a five-second conversation.
I was about to turn twenty-six, and that first humble meet and greet represented a “Holy fuck!” moment for me. At first, it came off like every other meet and greet in the world, with the fans herded along one by one. Step up, take a picture with me, move out. In, photo, out. The arrangement felt impersonal, so I turned to the organizers.
“These people have dedicated their time to coming out here,” I said, stating the obvious.
“Yes?” one of the handlers asked, not getting my point. “Keep it going!”
“Forget what they paid for this, that’s on them,” I said. “But what about their time?”
The expression on the faces of the organizers said it all: What about it?
Step up, take a photo, move out.
The fans were giving up moments of their life to stand and wait for an opportunity to speak to me. I wasn’t going to give them a fake hug, a frozen smile, and send them off from my perch in the land of not-giving-a-fuck. Faced with actual flesh-and-blood human beings, I found that I couldn’t treat them as mere units. How many units did you do today? Oh, I did two hundred units. At $50 a unit, that’s . . .
I just couldn’t behave that way. Right then and there, I felt myself changing, starting to care about people more now that I saw them caring about me. Some of their concern might be shallow—“That’s the dude on TV! I want to get a shot with him!”—but others showed a deep appreciation. They could cite chapter and verse of what I had done on the show.
“Bro, that number you did, the quickstep to the Pretenders doing ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong,’ that made my day, made my evening, and I went to bed that night dreaming about dancing.” “Hey, my mom and I had a couple of years of watching the show together and it brought us a lot closer.” “My grandma passed a month ago, and your season was the last thing we shared—I always remember she loved your cha-cha to Katy Perry.”
Connection. That was what was happening in that smelly pub on Long Island, and I came to realize that connection was what I’d been searching for my entire life. Suddenly I understood what I was really doing on Dancing with the Stars. I had been given this opportunity to have an impact on people, simply by virtue of (a) doing what I loved, but also (b) just by showing a little bit of care.
The agents and meet-and-greet organizers failed to understand that connection took time. They wanted the usual process of stepping up, taking the photo, moving out. They looked at me with pity in their eyes, as if I wasn’t grasping an essential truth about my place in the world.
For me, the process was different: Step up—connect!—take a picture, say thanks and goodbye with a smile. We’re both human beings, I thought, justifying the process to myself. This was one area where my usual motto of “keep it moving” did not apply. The ratio of effort to happiness seemed to be mathematically magical. I was a superhero with a superpower, where I could affect so many people in such a positive way. It was the best thing ever.
From that point on, Dancing with the Stars took on a different meaning for me. I still wanted the glitz, the glamour, and the status—I mean, I was still a performer—but now I understood the incredible power of connecting to people. I had always believed I had to act in keeping with my moral compass. I was raised that way, and it was still as if I was representing my parents with my actions. But I never really cared about strangers before, or what strangers’ perception of me might be.
In that moment my attitude changed completely. Ah, so this was what I had been doing that first season on prime-time television. It wasn’t about hauling down a big payday (though that was nice), or beating out my fellow competitors (or, as in my case that season, not beating them out). No, I was in the business of connecting with people.
All of which made me desperately want to get re-signed for a second season, because that would allow me the opportunity to embark upon a similar trajectory with hundreds of thousands of new people. It didn’t matter who the audience member was, or what their situation in life might be. The exchange worked both ways, inspiring and being inspired. It was always possible that I could inspire somebody else, and that fact inspired me to stay inspired myself. Now that’s a lot of inspiration.
There were three tiers of producers in charge of Dancing with the Stars. First there were my employers, the production company that worked with me, the in-the-studio, boots-on-the-ground team. They were hired by BBC Worldwide, the folks who held the rights to the program’s original concept, first used by a popular show in the UK called Strictly Come Dancing. The BBC execs had the power to say, “Hey, we like this guy and we don’t like this guy.” They in turn had been contracted by the show’s distributor, ABC, and execs at the network could also weigh in: “We don’t like this gal, but we really like this gal.”
The production company, the BBC, and ABC. That was a lot of people I had to answer to—me, who had never had to answer to anyone but my father before. I could not possibly question his love, and though his discipline was hard, I knew his intention was to give me the best shot at success. So this was a new situation, interestingly different and really terrifying at the same time. All told there were maybe forty people who were making the ultimate decision on my life, and I didn’t even know a lot of their names—never looked them in the eye or shook their hands.
Given my less-than-stellar showing in my first season, the thread I was hanging from was probably a lot thinner than most of the other pro dancers. But maybe the producers heard about what was going on at those meet and greets during the midseason break. Perhaps the people I met with and greeted had been inspired to post positive stuff about me on the show’s discussion boards. Or the harsh reality could have been that I was still simply riding on Maks’s coattails.
Whatever the reason, the thread didn’t snap. I found myself on the receiving end of a Hollywood phone call, inviting me to join Dancing with the Stars for the upcoming fall season. It felt like a reprieve, as though I had dodged a bullet.
MY SEASON 14 PARTNER WAS SHERRI SHEPHERD, WHO AT THE time was a host on The View. Super smart, super bubbly, she was a comedian in her forties who had just had a kid, and was a woman who had been through a lot in her life. I always think that the funnier a comedian is, the darker her journey to that laughter must have been. And this turned out to be the case with Sherri. Her strength came through in her personality, which had a lightness to it, yet at the same time a gritty drive. She had a generous energy despite her past experiences, from poverty in Chicago and homelessness in L.A. She made the arduous climb up comedy’s ladder in little clubs around the country, and for her to wind up where she was represented a huge accomplishment. Now she had a beautiful son as well.
Sherri rose super early every morning and took her place alongside ABC powerhouse Barbara Walters and one of my all-time favorites, Whoopi Goldberg. She had her hands full with The View and being a new mom, but she was so much in love with Dancing with the Stars that competing on the show had been her longtime dream. Every year, she had requested time off from The View, and every year, she was told no. It didn’t seem to matter that ABC broadcast both programs.
Finally, in time for Season 14, Barbara changed her tune. “Fine, Sherri, you can do it,” she said (and I’m paraphrasing the conversation I got secondhand from Sherri). “We’re going to arrange for you to be in L.A. on Monday and Tuesday, and on those days you’ll be on The View via satellite. Then you’ll take the red-eye Wednesday to be on the show in person Wednesday and Thursday, and for Fridays’ taped show.”
Got it? Okay. A midforties new mother, flying back and forth across the country for weeks. But Sherri’s passion for Dancing with the Stars made it happen. It was her dream come true. I had a private thought of “Fuck! What a responsibility!” I didn’t want to be the one who shattered the dream. How could I not want to give this woman an awesome chance to grow? I wanted her to be the star, because she deserved it.
She kept to her regular schedule on The View during our three-week rehearsal period, which I loved because we were in New York City, not in West Hollywood or in some kind of windowless soundstage bunker somewhere in the Valley. I was working two blocks from Lincoln Center, with a dream gig in my dream city. I could be a human being with some resemblance of a normal life. I could have dinner with my parents, act irresponsibly with my friends, or hang out with a local artist over a big lunch in the Village—and at the same time still be part of an incredible television phenomenon. The best of both worlds.
Even though I wasn’t exactly a pro at being a pro quite yet, we had a great season, and I was able to give Sherri a lot more than I had given Elisabetta. I discovered the skill of patience, which could work wonders with a partner new to the ballroom world, and which was a revelation for me at the time. I kicked myself for being such a little Hitler with Elisabetta, and resolved to be more forgiving this time around.
Sherri wound up with a collection of amazing appearances to treasure, a string of killer routines, as well as smaller moments of serene reflection. She was a memorable contestant on Dancing with the Stars, which was no small feat amid the dozens upon dozens of contestants spread over twenty-five seasons, some of whom were not memorable at all. We were eliminated after week four, so again, I wasn’t able to bring my partner to the halfway point in the show. But by that time Sherri was exhausted and ready to leave.
I idly formulated a half-assed conspiracy theory, speculating that Barbara Walters had a hand in what happened. She got fed up with Sherri flying back and forth, with half her heart on the dance floor in West Hollywood, the other on the set of a talk show in New York City. Barbara was powerful enough in the network hierarchy to get the word to the judges: Sherri Shepherd must be eliminated!
“You did a little dancing,” I imagined Barbara telling her cohost, “but you’re finished out there.” I couldn’t blame Barbara a bit if she had been thinking that way. Sherri was an essential element on The View. When there were awkward moments between the other hosts, between Barbara and Whoopi Goldberg, say, it would always be Sherri’s voice sounding a comical “dun-dun-dun” that cut the tension and made everything okay.
She contributed at least one great punch line every time she was on Dancing with the Stars. She might not have been the best dancer, but she was the highlight of each episode she was in, just due to her effervescent personality. On the level of pure entertainment, on the level of lasting inspiration, she was awesome.
Peta Murgatroyd won that season as a pro dancer with her celebrity partner, Green Bay Packers wide receiver Donald Driver. She and I had both joined the show the season before, when she was eliminated first and I was eliminated second. Now I was eliminated fourth with Sherri, and Peta won the whole thing, taking home the Mirrorball Trophy with Donald. I loved Peta and was happy for her, but my inner competitor took a cold-eyed view of the situation.
“Well, Peta’s moving at a faster pace than me,” I couldn’t help telling myself. “That means I’m probably doing something wrong.” I needed to evaluate what I could do differently in the next season, but I wasn’t totally sure how to make the adjustment.
BY SOME SECRET CALCULUS OF PUBLIC TASTE, AFTER THAT second season I moved up from being a G-list celebrity to taking my place on the F-list. I managed to get invited onto The View and shake hands with Barbara Walters, which made me feel a little bit full of myself. I took a picture with Whoopi Goldberg. I mean, come on! Whoopi Goldberg! I was moving on up!
At the same time I was still the same old Val, the local kid, teaching lessons and holding seminars at the Dance With Me studios in the New York metropolitan area. I was the same dude that students had sessions with for $60 an hour a year ago. I was on a TV show, but nothing had changed apart from that. Who cared about Hollywood?
Doing the hard work on the dance floor was where all my credibility had come from. I wouldn’t have been able to preach what I did if I didn’t have follow-through in the studio. It wasn’t any kind of a miracle, and I wasn’t there exactly doing God’s work—I was doing Val’s work. I wanted to help people feel good and help them sense their innate self-worth.
Heavily involved in the Dance With Me studios and hitting every meet and greet I possibly could, I nevertheless kept my ear to the ground for word from West Hollywood. Through the grapevine I heard that the next season, Season 15, would be an all-star affair, bringing back champions and fan favorites from the show’s entire run.
Okay, I thought, I’m out of a job. I had been on for only two seasons at that point, and neither of them had achieved an all-star result by any stretch of the imagination. It seemed I would never make it past eighth place. I was simply doing the math, being not pessimistic but rather realistic about my prospects of getting called back for this special season. My life hung in suspension.
But finally the call came.
First some British guy came on the line and screamed, “Hello! Hello! Hello!” several times over. Then he handed the call over to the American producers, Joe and Ashley.
“Hey, how are you?” Ashley burbled. “We’re very excited because you’re back on!”
“Oh, wow, thank you so much.”
“No, thank you so much,” Joe chimed in. “We’re excited about your partner.”
Next the celebrity cast got announced, headlined by popular champions Emmitt Smith and Drew Lachey. Then there was Apolo Ohno, who was, you know, Apolo fucking Ohno, wearer of the sickest soul patch, possessor of possibly the coolest name ever, and winner of eight Olympic medals. Gilles Marini, probably one of the best celebrity male dancers the show had seen, came back for a second turn. Peta got paired with him, making her the clear front-runner among the pros. Actress Kirstie Alley was again matched with Maks, forming the same couple who were runners-up on the show’s highest-rated season.
Victim number three for me would ultimately be the one who helped me turn a corner on the show. My partner, Kelly Monaco, had won the Mirrorball six years before, in the first season, when Dancing with the Stars was just a six-couple, six-week show. She represented probably my last best chance. If I didn’t prove myself this time around, paired with a former champion, how could the showrunners possibly justify bringing me back again?
Kelly and I vibed right away. She was a chick from Philly, and I was a boy from Brooklyn, so we had growing-up-in-the-hood stories to share. Hanging together meant a blast of big-city East Coast nostalgia. I was twenty-six, Kelly was thirty-six and had been through a lot of experiences in her life. On my part, I was happy AF teaching rumba walks to a former Playboy Playmate.
She had broken out at age twenty-one as a centerfold and worked her way into a starring role on the long-running ABC soap, General Hospital. During the years after her first Dancing with the Stars season in 2005, she had become increasingly connected with A-list Hollywood, a world that was totally beyond my scope. She knew everyone in town and had all the heaviest hitters on her speed dial.
She was also an extraordinary beauty, and as a dance couple we looked perfect together. When we interacted during our rehearsal spots we displayed a great sense of banter, indulging in smart-mouthed urban patter. We simply had good chemistry, the kind that translated perfectly onto the TV screen.
That season was the first time that I felt the fans marked me for a big dose of romantic melodrama. Viewers played up my intimate relationship with Kelly, which took me somewhat by surprise.
Maybe it was naive of me, but I never could understand why people are so obsessed with other people’s chemistry. Getting swept up in the tempest of gossip, as I did with Kelly, I found the fixation was a little over the top, not to mention annoying. Interviewers and columnists wanted to know everything. But when you’ve got something really special, you’re not talking about it publicly 24/7. You’re too busy living it. The curious public pried into every corner, marking everything we had together like a dog marks its territory. And, yes, I just drew a comparison between gossip and a dog pissing on a tree.
I didn’t want the negative energy of other people’s opinions to infiltrate my life. I never read the tabloids or checked into the gossip shows on TV, but just knowing that they were talking about us became an intrusive influence. Whether Kelly and I were an item wasn’t why I wanted to be the focus of conversations around the office water cooler. I wanted my efforts, my accomplishments, my moments of impact to be the center of attention, not what I did or did not do off the set.
This is where you might look at me and say, “Really, Val? Hollywood is obsessed with romance? You’re so damned smart, but you didn’t know that?”
Yeah, I’ll cop to it. For all my experience, I was naive. I didn’t know that people in general and Hollywood in particular had become absurdly fixated upon other people’s relationships, to the point where it sometimes seemed as though it was the only fucking thing in existence. I’d gaze longingly out of my bedroom window and wish upon a star: “Oh gee, I wish people were this concerned with a single-payer health care option.” Yes, well, not really, but you get the idea.
With Kelly I experienced for the first time being the focal point of the public eye. As a couple, Elisabetta Canalis and I had been nonstarters. Even though we had great chemistry, Sherri Shepherd and I didn’t exactly look like we were messing around—fooling around, maybe, joking like crazy, yes, but not hopping into bed together.
I can’t completely play ignorance over the situation, because to some degree I participated in it. There was a reason for that. I had gone two-episodes-and-out with Elisabetta and four-and-out with Sherri. Honestly, I was down for whatever would earn me another week to produce an awesome dance number for Kelly, even if it meant taping a package crammed full of cheeky innuendos and romantic nuance, and even though it meant being unable to watch a package without cringing at least once.
It wasn’t as if what Kelly and I had together was some kind of artificial charade. I was young and single, she was amazing, and we had a natural attraction for each other. But I was never a person who kissed and told, and I was raised to keep personal lives private, with flamboyant PDA’s considered low-class. So the season might have been cringeworthy at times, but at least I did get a lot of airtime, and the internet went crazy with Kelly and Val.
For the first time, I had a fully adult season. The producers promoted me as the new sex symbol on the show. It worked because Kelly was so feminine and confident that she was a model for every woman. When a woman looks happy, fulfilled, empowered, and strong, the man standing next to her suddenly becomes a sex symbol.
Yes, we played into it, okay? By week ten Kelly and I were just laughing at the whole melodrama. Since I was already committed, I pushed my chips into the center of the table and went all in. During a “Wet, Wild, and Skimpy” flamenco routine, Kelly flung off her top like a challenge, stripping down to a feathered bikini. As if in response, I ripped off my pants and went near-commando in a black Speedo. Then we climbed onto a platform with a pool of inch-deep water and dance-splashed around in that for a while.
Off the hook, out of control, but way, way popular. The audience went nuts. For a quick minute “Speedo flamenco” became a thing. I had pushed the trademark Chmerkovskiy move of taking my shirt off to a whole new level.
“Well that happened,” I tweeted afterward. “#sorrymom.”
The routine was a testament to our relationship, how I made Kelly feel, how I was able to present her to the world. On the discussion boards, the comments came fast and furious. “Damn, so it’s real, not just made for TV, and he’s not just the little brother.” I started enjoying a bigger presence on the show, a bigger voice, and made it farther and farther into the season, all the way to the finals. But romance-for-ratings represented a deal with the devil, one that would come back to haunt me on future seasons.
My partner mentored me in ways that I desperately needed back then. I didn’t have that many friends who were truly entertainment industry insiders, and I lucked out with Kelly. My brother had a very different kind of relationship with Hollywood, and a different relationship with the show, so while much of his counsel helped me out, some definitely did not work for me.
Kelly knew the town backward and forward. She was friends with people who had made it to a very high level, and now she was in love with a person who had just pulled himself up from G-list status and clawed his way onto the F-List. She was able to give me invaluable insight on how the wacky world of Hollywood worked.
To cite just one example, I had always struggled at press events, especially the sort of round-robins with multiple reporters that were commonplace in entertainment. I would get upset over questions that seemed shallow and absolutely brain-dead, centered on some kind of nothing issue that I didn’t care about. In my mind I pictured myself as a talk show hero, on Larry King Live or Real Time with Bill Maher, deep into meaningful and incisive political exchanges. I’d be ready for complex discussions, but the journalists would toss me softball question after softball question, and I always wound up feeling as though my intelligence had been insulted.
Kelly set me straight.
“The key in all situations, Val, is always to know your audience,” she told me, an example of the kind of memorable advice that’s helped me forever afterward.
“It’s not about what you know or what you want to say,” she went on. “It’s about doing all of those things at the right time for the right audience. There’s a time to preach about changing the world and a time to just lightheartedly discuss your cha-cha.”
If you know that the audience was there for a specific reason, in other words, speak to your audience and speak to that reason. Don’t just blurt out opinions, and don’t just share your weighty thoughts with everyone equally.
Know your audience—a good rule of thumb in show business, and since the entire world is a stage, a good idea in life as a whole, too.
Reflecting on the events of my childhood, I realized that I had understood the concept from the very first, even if I was too young to put it into words. One way or another, I had always been playing to the audience.
To explain better what I mean, let me go back to the beginning, not to my start on Dancing with the Stars, but back to the real beginning, in a decayed Soviet harbor town known as the Pearl of the Black Sea.