Maksim Chmerkovskiy is best known for his impressive dance skills and leading role on ABC’s Dancing With The Stars. However, it’s his passion for life that has lead him to win over the hearts of millions of Americans. Originally from Ukraine, Maks arrived in New York City at a young age with only his talent, dedication, and family support. Since then, he has established himself as one of the best ballroom dancers in the world, a successful entrepreneur, and one of the most adored men on television.
Tell us about your background.
I was born in Odessa, Ukraine and immigrated to America in 1994. We moved to Brooklyn, NY on Avenue Z and West Street.
What brought you to the states?
The pursuit of happiness and for a better future. We landed in Brighton Beach Brooklyn from the former USSR.
I started working when I was 15 years old, dancing at night in Russian restaurants. I had a very close tie with the Russian community in Brooklyn. Then I started dancing with Dancing with the Stars and I welcomed the change in my life.
How does being a New Yorker contribute to your story?
My life in Ukraine and my life in America are so separate from each other, like BC and AD. We landed May 29, 1994 and life began. Ukraine gave me powerful lessons, especially in understanding what socialism is. Living in America for 20 years has been ridiculous and I attribute it to the fact that I’m a New Yorker.
Can you tell us about one of your earliest memories in New York.
I like to say that when I came to America I was welcomed by the United Nations. One of my earliest memories was of five kids on the playground: two Italian twins, a Russian, a Puerto Rican, and a black dude with a Rottweiler. I was riding on a pair of roller blades — they were the only thing that was given to me when I arrived in America. The kids came over and I quickly realized that they wanted to steal my roller blades. I didn’t understand English and of course by the time I realized what was happening, it was already too late.
Val [my little brother] went home shouting, “call 911, Maks is getting beat up!” Back in the USSR, we would watch COPS dubbed in Russian. We thought that 911 was a magical number to dial where a SWAT team would swoop in and save the day. To me, the experience was like welcome to America! At the time it was a devastating blow to my ego, but it was amazing and I love that it happened.
When you came to America at the age of 14 years old, you didn’t speak any English?
On the plane over to New York, I sat next to a Hasidic Jew and he taught me four phrases in English: Hello; Goodbye; Fuck You; and No Parking. That got me through the first year.
Tell us a little bit more about your dancing career.
Dancing gave me the opportunity to travel. I spent my youth traveling to Asia and Eastern and Western Europe. Having said that, had I not danced I don’t know if I would have traveled. However, I would have still tried to be a well-rounded international person today.
How has traveling the world impacted your perspective on the world?
Through travel, I was able to see how how similar the US is to other countries. I didn’t know it back then, but I’ve realized in the last 20 years that there isn’t that big of a difference between us and any other country around the world — and I’ve been to many!
What makes the US the best country in the world is that it offers the best opportunities. Any kid in a third world country can do what I can do. The difference between me and all those other people that can dance are the opportunities that I have been given as an American.
When did you start dancing?
I started dancing when I was four years old. I’m very grateful to dance even though I didn’t initially want to do it. You don’t make choices when you’re four; I did what I was told.
Do you have a moment in your dancing career that you are most proud of?
I won the US Open when I was 18 years old.
How did landing a leading role on Dancing With the Stars change your life?
It allowed me to be not just not an immigrant, but another character in the Hollywood business. I realized that I was a lot more than just Brighton Beach, and I can work towards being the person that I want to be.
You are very open about expressing gratitude to your fans that help foster your career. Where does that gratitude come from?
The gratitude comes from my parents. I’m grateful first and foremost to my parents. Immigrants have a high percentage of divorce rates. Immigrating to a new country is so difficult and the process is so hard. I was fourteen years old and my brother was eight. We had no money and no help. My parents were penniless. My dad was a highly educated man who was suddenly dishwashing in one place and a delivery man in another.
Can you tell us more about your family’s journey as first-generation Americans?
When we landed in New York there was no furniture in our apartment. My dad took a marker and on the bare walls of the apartment wrote, WE WILL SURVIVE. He wanted us to not only survive, but to develop. What would have been the point of moving to another country and not progress?
Within two months the wall was filled with nouns, adjectives, and phrases to learn in English. It was all inspirational stuff. You would think that we were raised by Martin Luther King Jr. or something.
I give them all of the credit. Both my parents were selfless and gave up a lot of things. And it was all for us. They didn’t owe it to me or my brother, and for that I am grateful. I am also grateful to my friends and the people that I meet along the way including my fans.
Splitting your time between so many cities such as LA and New York, where do you call home?
New York is what makes me me. It gives me energy, and the city is incredible. It has so many flaws but you realize that’s what makes it beautiful. On the West Coast everything is so slow. Kind of like the weather, LA is lukewarm. With a little bit of the cold you experience in NYC you start to see people hustle.
What are some other things that you love about New York City?
There isn’t a “type” in NYC; it’s like its own country with its own vibe. You can’t find one person that you can label as a New Yorker. Brooklyn to me is a big deal. A lot of things came out of there whether it’s music, arts, or science. I’m very proud to be a Brooklynite.
What are some of the things you see today that were influenced by New York and Brooklyn culture?
A big influence in the world today is hip hop and graffiti. Right now fashion and street art come hand in hand. People who now try to make it in high fashion go back to hip hop for reference. I am a huge fan of sneakers, and you see the connection there too.
I live right off of Melrose in Los Angeles. When we go to my friends restaurant Fratelli, we drive down the entire street and pass the birthplace of LA street art and fashion. This was all influenced by New York City.
What about the influence of New York hip hop?
Many people don’t understand how much even rock music is hip hop-inspired. I fly around the world and I see kids in Russia and Ukraine that are rapping on a level that is bananas. Listening to their lyrics, you realize how much richer it is because we have ten more letters in the Russian alphabet. Believe me, that goes a long way in lyrics.
It was here in Soho where it all began. This is the air that I breathe. It’s an amazing opportunity to reflect on the fact that New York City is the place that makes me who I am.
When you come home to New York, where are your go-to’s?
The Turkish Bathhouse on East 10th St. and 1st Ave. In Russian, we call it “Banya”. The heat penetrates your skin all the way to the bones. As athletes, our muscles are a lot more dense so it’s difficult to penetrate that with heat. I go there because it was built in 1892; it’s an institution. It’s an interesting place. It can be just you, some super star, a homeless man, and an old Russian guy.
Any other go-to’s?
We have to play basketball as friends. We always stop by a court and ball, whether it’s outside or indoors.
So, are you also really good at basketball?
I can contribute for a team effort.
It sounds like you are always very busy, when do you find time to relax?
I appreciate long distance flights because that’s my mandatory sleep time.
When you’re not working, how do you like to spend your leisure time?
I pride myself on being in touch with the times and the news. I wake up to CNN and other news outlets. I want to know things that happen and understand the political changes occurring in America.
With all your experience under your belt, what’s one piece of advice you’d give to others?
People are busy, and they tend to not make time for the pleasures in life. My time is my most valuable possession because I’ll never get it back. Life is a lot more fun and you’ll make a lot more memories when you enjoy it. Some people think life is a sprint; that there’s a starting line and a finish line. Life isn’t like that. Plan on living a really long and productive life with your friends and family.