Passionate Partners

UPDATED 02/23/2009 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/23/2009 at 01:00 AM EST

They just got engaged on Dec. 31, but Dancing with the Stars pros Maksim Chmerkovskiy and Karina Smirnoff already verbally tango like a couple who've been together for decades. Take, for example, the subject of their first kiss.

"I think it was when we went to the Little Door [a Los Angeles restaurant] in late September. Right?" Karina asks her fiancé. "Yes, you kissed me," he replies. "He says I kissed him. He kissed me," Karina objects. "We kissed at the same time," Maks insists. "He's delusional a little bit. He thinks that we hooked up in the past," she continues. "We kissed before," he interjects. "We were, like, 16!" she says, then asks, "Is that when we got drunk?" Maks smirks. "That's when you got drunk," he says. "And that's when we kissed?" Karina asks. "Yes—your boyfriend was standing, like, 20 feet back," Maks says. Karina rolls her eyes and shakes her head.

And so they go, frequently stepping on each other's toes, but mostly content to bask in their newly engaged bliss—uncharted territory for a pair of hard-driving perfectionists who until recently rarely, if ever, let their guards down. "For me, right now, the fun of it is the fact that I don't want anybody else in my life," says Maks, 29. Echoes Karina, 31: "Knock on wood, we do not need anybody else but each other."

Now that the engagement has started to sink in, the pair—who have spent the past two months on the road with the Dancing with the Stars tour and will kick off the eighth season of ABC's No. 1-rated series on March 9—have begun to think about wedding plans, likely in late 2009. "If it's up to me, I'd go to Bora Bora for two weeks," says Karina. As for their first dance at the wedding, "we're not dancing," says Maks. "My idea is that I'll sing to her." But he's eager to start a family. "He wants kids right away," says Karina. "I think ideally within a couple of years."

The New Year's Eve proposal didn't quite go off without a hitch. Although the notoriously confident Maks—known as the "bad boy" of DWTS for his cocky ballroom persona—had planned all the details down to the red rose petals scattered around a suite at the Wynn Las Vegas hotel, there was one thing he hadn't anticipated: his own nerves. "I'm never nervous," he says. "But when it came down to it, I thought, 'It's not a given that she'll say yes.' All of a sudden it was like, 'Why did I even do this? Why did I put myself in this position to be turned down?'" Having planted the three-carat Harry Winston ring inside a Louis Vuitton bag, he waited anxiously for Karina's reaction. "He started mumbling," she says. "And somewhere in there he said, 'Baby, I've been with a lot of women...' When he said that, I was like, 'Okay, I can't laugh.' And then somewhere within this moment he goes, 'I guess I have to ask a question ... would you ... would you marry me?' I thought it was so cute, because you never see Maks [nervous] like this."

Although their families have yet to officially meet, the couple have a history that dates back 14 years, when both were starting out as ballroom dancers in the New York City area. They had each emigrated from Ukraine at age 14—he from Odessa, she from Kharkov—and both saw dancing as "an outlet to move to the world you want to be in," says Maks, who owns several East Coast dance studios. As they ascended the ranks of the pro dance world, racking up national titles, they competed against each other but never teamed up professionally or romantically. Says Karina: "I was giving him time to grow up." Laments Maks: "I was always little 'Maksusha' to her. I was a boy—I wasn't a man—for Karina."

Things started to change when they were reunited on DWTS in 2006. As the show took off, both dated other people; Karina's two-year romance with her former DWTS partner Mario Lopez ended last June. Watching her date other guys, "I was like, 'How the hell did she end up with these douche bags?'" says Maks. Meanwhile, Karina spent years listening to various girlfriends complain about what a bad boyfriend Maks was. "I heard that he was very self-centered. I would always be like, 'What do you all see in him? I don't get it!'"

Then, at the start of the show's seventh season last fall, they were paired for a group number. "Everyone knows that we just want to dance with each other," says Maks with trademark swagger. "When we dance together, you get quality dancing." Their first date—and that contested "first" kiss—followed soon after, and slowly they began to see each other differently. "We had an actual deep conversation," says Karina. "I never saw that emotional side of him. He's very sensitive—completely opposite of how he is on the show." Hoping for guidance, she confided in Maks's good friend (and fellow DWTS pro) Tony Dovolani. "I said, 'Tony, I don't know what I should do. It's Maks! Am I crazy?' He's like, 'It could either be really great or you're going to kill each other. Either way, it's going to be fun to watch.'"

Right now the pair are focused on making a relationship between two "identical Capricorns," as Maks puts it, go the distance. But when they discuss their future, the verbal two-step starts up again.

"One of my favorite movies is The Notebook. At the very end..." Karina begins before her man interrupts. "You want to be in a coma?" he asks. Karina rolls her eyes again. "She wasn't in a coma! They died together," she says of the film's lovers. Maks shrugs. Thirty years from now, "I just see a loving couple," he says, unusually earnest. "I'm trying to do everything possible to make this work."



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