The motivating notion of "Dancing with the Stars" - and a savvy one it turned out to be - was that people would tune in to see celebrities placed in challengingly unfamiliar, and perhaps embarrassing, situations. In this case, as competitive ballroom dancers.
They would be partnered and supported by attractive, anonymous professionals.
But an odd thing happened. As the ABC show, which debuted in 2005, became a big hit, several of the pro dancers stepped out of the shadows and became celebrities themselves. (The show's "stars" are typically B-list performers, actors who were once famous, professional athletes and TV personalities.)
Among the show's skilled dancers who've emerged most prominently are two natives of Ukraine, Maksim Chmerkovskiy (pronounced, pretty much, as it's spelled: Shmer-kov-ski) and Karina Smirnoff.
They're now headlining a Broadway show, "Forever Tango," a dance revue that opens today at the Walter Kerr Theatre. They're scheduled to be in the production through Aug. 11; the show has an announced run through Sept. 15.
The tall, dark and hunky Chmerkovskiy, who lives in Fort Lee, was frank about what he and Smirnoff bring to the table, in a show that otherwise features little-known tango dancers, along with the Latin music singer Gilberto Santa Rosa.
"Karina and I are a commercial entity," he said in a recent phone interview. "We're here to attract people to the show. But we don't want to do fake tango; we want to do the real thing."
The 33-year-old dancer explained that the Latin ballroom routines that are his specialty are nothing like the intricate, smoldering tango dancing that is a deep-rooted expression of Argentine culture.
"It's like being a classically trained ballet dancer and then being asked to tap dance," he said.
"These dancers [in the show] were born with it. Some of the men have 'tango' tattooed on their bodies.
"Karina and I really worked hard. We rehearsed for two weeks, which is a lot for two solos and two group numbers.
"There are things that the audience might not even notice: how you walk, the angles of your body, all the little details. We wanted to be very responsible, and get them right."
This is the third go-round on Broadway for "Forever Tango," which debuted in 1997. "It was the first Broadway show I saw," recalled Chmerkovskiy, who came to the United States when he was 14. It then was remounted in 2004.
For Chmerkovskiy and Smirnoff, this is their second Broadway dance show, having previously appeared together in "Burn the Floor" in 2009.
Chmerkovskiy, who formerly lived in Edgewater ("I gave the apartment to my parents"), has benefited from his "Stars" appearances - his younger brother Valentin also dances on the show - - in other ways.
Having operated a dance studio in Saddle Brook in his pre-TV days, he now has a chain of studios throughout the tri-state area, including one in Ridgefield. He also acts, has made personal appearances and has his own production company.
Perhaps the biggest sign that he's arrived as a celebrity is that his personal life is news.
He and Smirnoff became engaged in December 2008, started making wedding preparations - including hiring a planner -- and then called off the whole thing in September 2009. I know this because every step was avidly reported.
The "drama" of their professional reunion has been made part of the publicity campaign for "Forever Tango," which released this statement by Smirnoff: "Tango is an intense, sensuous dance of passion. Asking Maks to join me was in and of itself intense, so I figured by opening night, it would be explosive!"
For his part, Chmerkovskiy was agreeable to expanding on their reconnection.
"Saying yes to the show was also saying yes to each other," he said. "Sharing this with a person I was involved with has been a very emotional, cathartic experience. But we've both moved on; we're different people now. And I can't imagine doing this with anyone else."
Though he was willing to talk about his personal life, business was another matter.
He made only a guest appearance on "Stars" during last spring's season, and there's been speculation whether he'll return full-time for the fall run of the show, which has been suffering from sinking ratings.
"I don't discuss that," he said. "We'll be talking about [my returning], but I'm not thinking about that right now."
He did, however, acknowledge the impact of the show on his and Smirnoff's careers.
"Without it, there wouldn't be any us."
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