Image: Dancing with the stars
Carol Kaelson  /  ABC
Dance instructor Maksim Chmerkovskiy and partner Mel B. are in the running to win the ‘Dancing With the Stars’ competition.
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Special to msnbc.com
updated 11/27/2007 6:43:49 PM ET 2007-11-27T23:43:49

Before Maksim Chmerkovskiy was “Dancing with the Stars” on one of the highest-rated shows on television, he was a kid growing up in Ukraine, becoming a serious competitor on the junior ballroom dancing circuit, and then immigrating to the United States with his family at the age of 14.

Now 27, the man they call “Maks” owns two dance studios in the New York area and has led such “Dancing” starlets as Tia Carrere and Willa Ford around the floor.

This season, he has been partnered with “Scary Spice,” a.k.a. Melanie Brown. We got him on the phone recently and talked about his vast travel experiences.

Q: First things first. What should everyone see when they go to your native country, Russia?

A: Well, I would say you should go to where I’m from, a port city called Odessa. It’s famous for the times during the U.S.S.R. days when heads of government would come down to vacation there during the summer. We have beautiful beaches there and it’s a historic city with a lot of theaters. Russia’s amazing. You’ve got Moscow, which is kind of a no-brainer, plus St. Petersburg, in Ukraine you have Kiev, the capital. It used to be the original capital of Russia and I think it’s the oldest city in Russia. You can even go as high as Siberia.

Q: But would you really want to do that?

A: Sure. I mean, some people like to go to Alaska for vacation. I’m not one of them, but they’re out there, and they might think Siberia is something interesting. And you can go all the way east and I think it’s only an hour and a half flight to Japan.

Q: So does that mean you’ve been to Japan?

A: Yeah, quite a few times. I think Japan’s pretty cool. Everything’s technologically advanced there. What shocked me the most was the first time I went there, we landed and were put on the second floor of a double-decker bus by the organizer of the event to go from the airport to the hotel. We’re driving through the city, and it’s all skyscrapers. I mean all of it. I don’t think I saw one small building. So we were driving on the third level of the highway — second deck of the bus, third level of the highway, in brutal traffic that’s not moving at all. We were basically 30 feet from a nearby building, and I counted out that we were 15 floors up from the street level. I thought it was pretty amazing. And their bathrooms are ridiculous, too. I know it’s not such a pleasant thing to talk about, but it was the first time I experienced the beauty of a completely automated toilet seat. It vibrates, it’s got music, and it’s heated.

Q: Sounds better than the hotel room.

A: Almost. And it’s really incredible how they think of every little detail. In the bathroom, people are a bit ashamed if their own sounds are made public, if you know what I mean. So you flush the toilet when you do your thing so people don’t hear what you do, right?

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Q: Of course.

A: Exactly. So in Japan, to prevent unnecessary water consumption, what they did, and it’s so ingenious, is that you can press a button and it makes the sound of water flushing. It’s little things like that are amazing.

Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings

Q: What is it like to travel to the United States for the first time when you’ve been living in Russia your whole life?

A: This is going to sound a little funny, but what the hell? After 11 hours flying, we ended up what seemed like a block away from my house. In other words, relatives picked us up at JFK, drove down to Brighton Beach, and it was the most confusing thing. Now I was pretty smart, pretty sure for a 14-year-old, but my brother had no idea what was going on. The whole thing was so surreal that we didn’t even notice the drive from JFK to Brooklyn and how different it was from Russia. The next thing we know, we’re walking down Brighton Beach, seeing Russian signs, hearing our language and familiar Russian songs.

Q: Like you never left.

A: Right. But it didn’t take long to realize that New York is one of the most amazing cities to grow up in. It was an incredible experience for my family and me.

Q: And since moving to America, you’ve pretty much been everywhere around the globe, right?

A: Yes. It’s been a marathon of traveling and competing. I’ve been to every single continent, most of the civilized world, I’ve been everywhere in Europe. And I lived in Italy for nine months.

Q: Any scary or embarrassing moments from travel?

A: Coming back from U.S. Nationals three years ago, if I’m not mistaken, we were taking a plane from Minnesota. I have the biggest dance studio in the U.S., and we were 30 (student dance) couples with their parents — we basically filled up the whole plane. We’re flying back at night from, and we flew into a thunderstorm. Now, forget the shaking and turbulence. All that stuff was OK. But at one point, lightning started to hit and we had lightning hit the wing, with sparks and everything. Thank God it didn’t really damage the plane, but it was a crazy spark, the whole plane shook, all the kids started screaming, the parents started screaming and it was just chaos. It was probably the scariest experience that I’ve had traveling.

Q: Do you ever get a vacation?

A: Once in a while. One of the first vacations I ever took was five years ago to Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. All I can say about that one is that it was just ridiculous.

Q: Where do you want to go on your next vacation?

A: Cuba, I guess. I really want to visit there. It was very important to get American citizenship, but with that came the fact that I’m not able to simply get on a plane and fly to Cuba. It’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make and not a big deal. There are some places in Africa that I would love to visit. I’ve been to Sun City in Johannesburg, which was a great experience. I really want to go back and try to explore. The Middle East is something that is interesting. I’ve never been to Israel, and being of Jewish descent, it’s something I have to do. I would like to get in touch with my heritage, my roots. I’ve been invited to come and teach in Israel. Maybe I’ll take them up on that opportunity.

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