The celebrity dancer on diversifying his resume, being an older brother, and the tango
When Maksim Chmerkovskiy walked into the Starbucks on Broadway, he was momentarily unrecognizable from his usual tanned, costumed, and sometimes shirtless self on Dancing with the Stars. Wearing sunglasses, a tank top, and carrying a duffel bag, he made his way to a table for our interview. Then it was back to the Walter Kerr Theatre for the matinee of Forever Tango, where he is the leading man. The Ukrainian-born thirty-three-year-old worked tirelessly for the fame he now enjoys. There was a time when he would spend 365 days a year in his family-owned New Jersey dance studio. Now, he co-owns Dance with Me studio in Soho, and even with his busy schedule, still plays a creative role there. Although he lives in Fort Lee, New Jersey, he calls New York home, and acknowledges that the audience here expects a certain caliber of dancing from his Broadway performance. "It's a little bit of pressure." he says of having to perform the Argentine tango at "the highest level." Although those of us who have seen Chmerkovskiy on stage find that hard to believe. He always seems to be dancing at the highest level.
You said you've danced the tango many times before, but are really only learning it now. What does that mean?
Because we never studied tango or Argentine tango. It's very specific. It's like a trained ballet dancer all of the sudden doing a number in tap. You can dance, move, and be coordinated, but the set of rules and little nuances are completely different. What makes the dance are those nuances. We're very good at faking it for all these years.
Faking it on Dancing with the Stars you mean?
Yeah. The first time the producer said we're going to do Lindy Hop, Bollywood style, and all of that, we all looked him like, "What in our resume told you we know how to Bollywood dance?"
Well you fool the audience because we just think it comes naturally to you.
Yeah I know, they fool us too. Listen, YouTube goes a long way. Some of our pros actually have production send them an expert because they don't know what to do themselves.
Who do you see when you look out into the audience?
I see little kids and adults. Little kids bring flowers to the stage. My grandma's coming for the third time today.
You have said that your audience on Broadway is more critical than those who watch Dancing with the Stars.
Dancing with the Stars' audience is reasonable in a sense that they're just fans. They like whatever they see - for the most part. No disrespect; I'm just saying people tune in season after season because they get attached to either the dancers, or come with the fan base of the celebrities. When you're a fan of someone, that person can do no wrong by you. On Broadway, people come - the non-fans- because they see the name of the show and the description. If the description says it's Argentine tango and I'm a fan of it, when I get there, I'd better see some Argentine tango on the highest level, worthy of Broadway.
What was the rehearsal schedule like for Forever Tango?
We just had two weeks before. We work with the couple in the Playbill, Juan and Victoria. Juan has been with the show for nine years; he's sort of our dance captain. And Luis Bravo came in and was working with us too. He's not a dancer; he just gives his creative vision.
Your partner is Dancing with the Star's Karina Smirnoff. Why is one's partner so important in the tango?
Because it's not a dance, it's a storytelling and it's only in relation to a relationship. Tango has nothing to do with anything else. You don't dance tango, you don't move around - you have to have a connection. The partner is the only thing that's important, nothing else.
Were you surprised your Broadway run was extended?
They asked me right away for a five-week run and we agreed to three because I didn't know how we were going to work with Karina. It wasn't like I was testing her out or anything, but there's always a little bit of like, "Well, it might be a miserable experience." I knew it was not going to be. Literally first day of rehearsal, the producers called and asked if I wanted to extend it and I said, "Absolutely." It was a done deal then.
Do you miss Dancing with the Stars?
Because I think I've done it long enough. I think there's nothing there for me to prove. I'm at the point where I need to set up my future. And if I don't do it now by cutting the cord and trying to reinvent myself, I may never be able to after this comes to an end, which at one point it will. Or I'll get old and won't be able to dance. And at that time I want to be able to fall back on something that I've built. I want an extended career in this industry just because I can, unless someone tells me that I can't. That's why we're trying my hand in acting. I'm curious to see how that's going to work. It's fascinating to study and learn a new skill.
I saw you on All My Children.
I hope you didn't. But the point is that I'm not missing Dancing with the Stars because I think it's unnatural for me to miss it. I've been there for 13 seasons. It's been eight years. How long can I do this thing and miss it? If I did it once and never again, I'd miss it.
So will you go back to DWTS one day?
If they guarantee me a winner and the trophy's mine, I'm going to look at it and go, "I don't know if I have it in me to stay with somebody for three months and be into it the way I'm supposed to be." And I don't want to be unfair and jeopardize someone else's chances.
Your brother Val also dances on the show. What's it like being an older brother?
It's a lot of responsibility, but I went from him being my student first. He was my best pupil. And it's not like I have to say it. He was never a teacher's pet. He was in his family-owned studio and never jumped out and was always part of the class. The problem was coming home; I just wanted a brother, and he was staying a pupil. So we had a bit of a transitional period maybe four or five years ago, and since then, we're just best friends.
You co-own Dance with Me, which besides being in Soho, has locations on Long Island, in New Jersey, and Connecticut. How often are you in your studios?
I try to be there as much as I can, but I've been a studio owner since I was 17, so I kind of paid my dues. We worked 365 days. No exaggeration. During New Year's Eve, I stayed at the studio. Whoever came in, I taught. Then at 10 p.m., when the studio closed, I locked it and then went to celebrate. We did that for seven years. Now we created a company, a system. My job is no longer in day-to-day operations. I'm more of a creative, where-I-want-the-company-to-go type of person. My dad's more hands-on every day, but he's not a dancer. Between myself, Val, and sometimes Tony [Dovolani], we allow ourselves to venture out. Our growth and the studio's growth go hand in hand, so it's a win-win situation for us.
What are you favorite places in New York?
I live in Fort Lee, New Jersey, but I call New York home. I just love New York. New York has an energy about it. We have a lot of friends who own clubs and restaurants. Mostly it's Soho, Meatpacking District, maybe the Lower East Side. I don't really do the Midtown part; it's a little crazy. My life is always around people, so I don't want to be around people on my night off. I want to be around my people - we have a crowd - but it's people I miss seeing and love hanging out with, whether it's at a restaurant or just chilling at their house.
What are your future plans?
Just to be happy and successful. Our dad is very big on phrases. There's one we grew up with, "It's all about the end result." I may change my profession drastically and become a venture capitalist. Broadway's not going to buy me a jet, but it's definitely a stepping stone. This show is not for money. This if for, "I did that." We live in an era where everything is well documented. I have a responsibility for my kids to look and say, when they Google me 20 years from now, "That's my dad." I'm not going to be telling them stories. I'll show them the video.
Maksim will be in Forever Tango until August 11th, www.forevertangobroadway.com
Follow him on Twitter: @MaksimC