Precious few people can say they're living their dream, but Maksim Chmerkovskiy most definitely can make that claim. Chmerkovskiy is a successful dancer, choreographer, and entrepreneur. And thanks to his long stint on ABC's Dancing with the Stars, he is also a celebrity and sex symbol as recognizable as some of his high-profile dance partners, who have included Tia Carrere, Laila Ali, Denise Richards, Erin Andrews, Brandy, Kirstie Alley and, this season, Hope Solo.
"I came to Brooklyn from the Ukraine when I was 14 and I very quickly realized a couple of things," Chmerkovskiy says. "One of them was that I never want to work for a boss. I want to be my own boss. I want to utilize the opportunities this country has given me, versus the opportunities I didn't have back in the former U.S.S.R."
At 16, Chmerkovskiy opened his first studio, Rising Stars Dance Academy, a dance studio focused on youth ballroom dancing, in Ridgewood. "The problem," he says, "was that, in Brooklyn, there were already a bunch of studios that I didn't like, and I didn't want to open a studio that would become just one of the studios in the area. I wanted to open my studio somewhere where there was nothing like it and where people would look at it with no preconceived notions.
"The studio moved a few times and eventually landed in Saddle Brook. "It's been there ever since," Chmerkovskiy says. "A couple of years after I opened it, I decided that the commute was too much." He and his father, who was already involved as his business partner, moved to Garfield.
"Now, I also have my Dance With Me Dance Studios in Ridgefield, Soho and Long Island," Chmerkovskiy adds. "The Jersey studio will always be like my firstborn child. It's very dear to us and we're proud of it, and it'll always have a very special place in our hearts."
Chmerkovskiy now resides in Fort Lee. His parents, Larisa and Aleksandr, better known as Sasha, live in Edgewater. "We say we have the best view in the world because we look out on Manhattan," he says.
Chmerkovskiy spends as much time as he can at his Fort Lee home and Bergen County studios, but his Dancing with the Stars commitment demands that he spend countless hours in Los Angeles. At press time, he and current-season partner Solo, the soccer superstar, were still in the hunt for the coveted Mirror Ball trophy, while his brother Val and Val's partner, Elisabetta Canalis, had been eliminated.
"Hope has been great," Chmerkovskiy enthuses. "It's been a lot of fun. It's been a different experience, and I love that. We don't really have two seasons that are similar, and I haven't had two partners that were similar. It's another chapter in my book, and I'm all about new experiences. I'm really hoping that Hope will walk away with amazing feelings about the show, about dancing in general, and go back to her world with a new skill."
Asked if he derives more pleasure in teaching dance or actually getting out on the dance floor and performing a cha-cha, samba, foxtrot, paso doble or rumba, Chmerkovskiy pauses.
"Getting on the dance floor and dancing is something I do, and it's mine," he explains. "It's me and myself, and it's about self-expression – and you can't beat self-expression. But teaching dance, first of all, gave me a trade. And, ultimately, that's what led to Dancing with the Stars and all the opportunities since then.
"I also love the fact that I started teaching," he says. "There's something amazing about seeing the result of your work, especially since the results have to do with a human being. Because I started so young, right now, 17 years later, I have kids who were students and are now adults themselves. I taught them when they were 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 years old. Now they're in their mid-20s, and I know that I helped change their life and made it better, that I created an artist. That's an incredible achievement. So you can't compare the two. I love to dance. I love the center stage. I love the audience. I love the response, especially when it's a good response. But teaching is just a whole different pleasure."
Striking while the iron is hot, or as Chmerkovskiy puts it, "pushing to reinvent myself on pretty much a daily basis," he's fast becoming Chmerkovskiy Inc. He writes a regular blog and lends his support to Dance Team USA, which promotes dance activities for kids. Cirque du Soleil's Las Vegas production of La Reve, which he choreographed, continues to pack 'em in. And in the works are additional Dance With Me studios (in Los Angeles, Vegas, Connecticut and Miami), as well as several endorsement deals, TV show guest spots, hosting a Ukrainian version of the British game show called The Cube, and more.
"What do I want to do long term?" Chmerkovskiy says. "I want to make a difference. It's a very exaggerated phrase, and I can't really specify. After that, number one, I want a family. I want a bunch of kids. And my long-term dream, which I see very vividly – and I say this with caution because I know it's extremely romantic – but I see myself on my lawn with my wife, a bunch of kids, a bunch of grandkids and a bunch of bulldogs running around. My lawn is very big, my house is a castle and my life has been phenomenal. Everyone is happy, everyone is taken care of and …everyone is dancing."