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Behind the scenes of figure skating - Dec. 13

Karina Smirnoff has visions of ice skates on her feet

Former skater turned ballroom dancer Karina Smirnoff and fianc&eacute; Maksim Chmerkovskiy are performing in <i>Burn the Floor</i> on Broadway.
Former skater turned ballroom dancer Karina Smirnoff and fiancé Maksim Chmerkovskiy are performing in Burn the Floor on Broadway. (ABC Television)

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By Lois Elfman, special to icenetwork.com
(12/13/2007) - Nowadays, Karina Smirnoff is known as dance partner to such celebrity quick steppers as Mario Lopez, Billy Ray Cyrus and Floyd Mayweather, on the hugely popular TV show Dancing with the Stars. But if fate had turned slightly differently, she might have been featured on Skating with Celebrities.

"I'm an only child, and my parents and my grandparents all wanted to have an input in my growing up," says Smirnoff, who grew up in Ukraine and moved to the U.S. as a teenager. "My mom put me in figure skating."

Smirnoff also tried her hand at piano lessons and gymnastics, but skating outlasted them. The only thing that competed with skating in her affections was ballroom dancing, and when faced with a final choice at age 11, dance won out.

"As a girl, you've got to love the rhinestones and the makeup and the flashy side of dancing," she explains. Before Dancing with the Stars, Smirnoff was a high profile competitor in the ballroom world, winning five U.S. Latin titles.

She still loves to watch skating, and sadly notes the loss of artistry in recent years. Having spent years being judged, she feels a decisive bond. "We're so similar that when the Olympic Committee was considering whether to take on ballroom dancing to become part of the Olympic Games, their answer to us was they would have the same kinds of problems, political games, in ballroom dancing as they do in figure skating," she says.

Smirnoff has worked with two ice dance couples, helping one team learn the paso doble. A friend of hers regularly works with skaters, and her longtime dressmaker has made her share of skating costumes. "We give the skaters more of an artistic side of it, where we show them the ethnicity of a dance and the typical movements that create the dance," she says. "Then they put it on skates. That's why it's such a close world."

At this time of year, Smirnoff dusts off her skates for the holidays.

"I love Rockefeller Center," says Smirnoff, who has been living in Los Angeles since joining Dancing with the Stars but keeps a home in New Jersey. "Besides the fact that I love skating, it's super romantic."

Before saying goodbye, Smirnoff shares another skating/dancing parallel. On the Chinese version of Dancing with the Stars, they score the couples with a point system similar to the current international judging system, "just like figure skating," she says.