It's takes a lot more than a familiar face to come out on top on ABC's Dancing with the Stars — it takes some extremely fancy footwork. With just weeks to go in the competition, TV Guide gets you better acquainted with the professionals who make the stars' dancing shoes shine.
Maksim Chmerkovskiy (partnered with Laila Ali)
Season 2 partner: Tia Carrere (placed sixth)
Season 3: Willa Ford (placed seventh)
In a nutshell: "I've never danced with anyone my height, or my build."
Asked if world-class boxing champ Laila Ali could knock him flat, Chmerkovskiy — at 6'2", 195 pounds and all sinewy muscle — doesn't hesitate. "I am a very proud heterosexual male," says Chmerkovskiy, "and I don't stand a chance."
But Maks, as he is known in the ballroom-dance world, is world-class himself, ranking seventh internationally, second in the United States. The Latin specialist emigrated from Russia 15 years ago and now heads the Rising Stars Dance Academy in New Jersey.
Perfecting his own smooth moves hasn't been easy. A skiing accident when he was a teenager forced Maks to undergo multiple surgeries, left him with a steel rod in one leg from hip to knee (which has since been removed), and required months of physical rehab. So he can empathize with partners — like Ali — who face any kind of challenge. "The first meeting was a little tentative because here's all 5'11" of her and I'm like, 'Oh, my god. We're doing ballroom.' She's very big in her shoulders, arms and triceps, and it gets in the way." Still, Maks thinks Ali will surprise everyone. "She's a boxer by training but a lady inside. It's my job to uncover it."
Cheryl Burke (partnered with Ian Ziering)
Season 2 partner: Drew Lachey (champion)
Season 3: Emmitt Smith (champion)
In a nutshell: "I go against the rules. No one has this hair in the ballroom world."
And no one else has won DWTS twice. Visit the remarkable Cheryl Burke training former Beverly Hills, 90210 heartthrob Ian Ziering and you quickly discover one big secret to her success: She doesn't just talk to her students, she listens. "Emmitt used to always say, 'Show me,'" says Burke. "And I would put on the music and say, 'Show me. Show me how you would dance to this music.' And then he would put in his own moves."
For the San Francisco-born Burke, individuality is key. Her father (a dentist) and her mother (who owns nursing agencies) started her off in ballet at age 4. At age 11, her parents started ballroom dancing socially. "And they were like, come on, try it," says Burke. "But I thought ballroom dancing was for old people."
But standing on the sidelines at a ballroom competition changed her forever. "I saw kids my age in beautiful costumes, dancing to great songs at fast tempos. It wasn't just about doing a waltz." Burke instantly hung up her toe shoes and quickly shot to fourth in the United States in the under-21 category. In 2005, she won the World Cup Professional Rising Star Championship.
And now she gets to teach someone whose celebrity really means something to her. "I was such a fan of 90210 when I was a little kid," she says. Which one did she want to marry? "I have to be honest. Ian is great, and sometimes I call him [his character's name] Steve Sanders. But I have to say Luke Perry."
Don't mess with Karina Smirnoff on the dance floor — or off. The Ukrainian-born spitfire, now 28, is a six-time U.S. National Champion and is ranked second in the world.
This season, the fiery dancer is paired with a laid-back country music star. "Billy Ray said, 'You're going to be so upset you got me. I can't dance. I can't move,'" says Smirnoff. "And I said, 'There will be none of that. We will not go a negative route. We're going to be thinking that we're going to go all the way to the end. You start from zero and then you move forward.'"
That's what Smirnoff did, from age 5, when she launched into serious ballet and ice-skating. But at 9, she found her true calling in ballroom, which continued after her family moved to the United States when she was 12. Now, as a coach, she takes no prisoners. "Billy Ray's wife is very strong," says Smirnoff. "She'll say, 'Stop complaining! Get your act together!' So he says, 'Between the two of you, I have no choice.'"
She worked wonders with Jerry Springer. Now the Aussie pro has a seasoned dancer on her hands, albeit a former boy-band dancer, 'N Sync's Joey Fatone, now 30. But Johnson knows what it's like to start ballroom relatively late in the game: She didn't take her first class until she was 14, and then only because her brother wanted to meet girls.
She became an Australian Ten Dance Champion (which means she's an all-around threat with expertise in both Latin and ballroom styles) before retiring from competition in 2001. She also did the first three seasons of the Aussie version of DWTS before sending her show tape to producers here. "It's exactly the same show," says Johnson, "but in America, it's on a much bigger scale."
Now Johnson, whose dancing was on display in the feature film Strictly Ballroom, has to work her magic again. "Jerry told me he had never really exercised in his life. And Joey came into the competition a little heavier, a big guy who wants to get in better shape. I think he's already lost 15 pounds." What does she advise him for all the aches and pains? "Epson salts in the bath."
Julianne Hough (newcomer, partnered with Apolo Anton Ohno)
In a nutshell: "Time is our only enemy."
How would you like to teach ballroom dancing to someone who's exhausted and jet-lagged from competing in world championships in another sport? That's the challenge facing newcomer Julianne Hough, who, at the tender age of 18, had to train Olympic gold-medal speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno (who was distracted by the world championships in Milan) in little more than a week.
"On day one, he was pretty good, pretty coordinated," says Hough. "But it pretty much went downhill from there. Everyone's thinking about their third dance and we haven't even started our second one."
But the Utah native, who came to the attention of the show's producers when she was selected for the DWTS national tour, knows how to face long odds. She comes from a family of 14 brothers and sisters. She followed her dance coaches to London, where she trained from ages 10 to 15. And she became the youngest and only American to win the International Latin Youth Championship.
Ohno, she says, has a newfound admiration for dancing. "At first he didn't think dancing was going to be as hard as he has come to realize it is. He definitely has a lot more respect for those who dance."
ABC's Dancing with the Stars airs Monday at 8 pm/ET, and Tuesday at 9 (results show).