BrooklynFans of Books: From Odessa To Brooklyn To “Dancing With The Stars”

I’ll Never change My Name: An Immigrant’s American Dream from Ukraine to the USA to Dancing with the Stars

By Valentin Chmerkovskiy

Dey St., An imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

Valentin “Val” Chmerkovskiy, who has been one of the professional ballroom dancers on Dancing with the Stars since 2011, tells his life story for the very first time in his engaging memoir I’ll Never Change My Name.

Starting with his childhood in Odessa, Ukraine, and his Jewish family’s immigration to the United States, he examines what it was like to arrive in Brooklyn at the age of eight without knowing a word of English, and was a stranger in a strange land.

“In the classic ‘Who asked you?’ style of our family, I don’t recall being consulted about the decision to leave Odessa, writes Chmerkovskiy. “I was seven years old and did have an opinion. The other family members could have asked me but they didn’t. I do remember a huge family dinner –  it must have been in the spring of 1993 – when the idea was first announced.

Valentin Chmerkovskiy – I’ll Never Change My Name
Credit: Matt Sayles/CPi Syndication

“Everything in our culture was a dinner thing, an hours-long combination feast, debate, ad performance, with plenty of food and alcohol. The time spent around the dinner table was our Sunday church, our temple, synagogue, and mosque. We shared everything, all our thoughts and emotions, for better and for worse, accompanied by noisy interruptions and intense back and forths, all allowing us to wind up feeling united once again. The dinner table was where you made the big announcements, where the head of the house had to be the wise one, and where we learned the most, where we connected the most.

“This particular dinner, there were a lot of raw sentiments and more than a few tears. My father found himself looking at the same people he had been preaching to years before about loyalty to Russia. Those teenage ideals had now caught up to him in the real world – notthe imaginary world he had created for himself, influenced by Soviet propaganda. Now he was a grown man with a grown man’s responsibilities. We can’t stick it out after all.

“My mom was different. She hadn’t been preaching ideology in her teenage years. She had lifelong friendships, ones that she had always treasured and cared for.

“‘Oh my God, we’re leaving Odessa,’ my mother moaned. But even with all those deep feelings, still she signed on to the move.

“As an adult looking back, I stand in awe at my parents resolve. These two people essentially said, ‘We are all in on each other and our kids. This is it. I’m all in as a father and I’m all in as a husband. I’m all in as a mother and I’m all in as a wife.’

“I was sitting at the table, but I didn’t have any chips to play. I was excited, but I had just turned eight and was always in a state of perpetual excitement about something, anything, everything.”

After the family went to Moscow to appeal to the American embassy to get permission to come here, the family was on their way to New York City.

Chmerkovskiy writes of that trip, “At the end of May 1994, two months after I turned eight, we boarded an American Airlines flight to the U.S. with a single stop-over in Shannon, Ireland. As I stumbled off the airplane at JFK airport in New York City, I recall my first impression was that the air smelled different. Not only that, but the colors seemed sharper, with a greater variation of shades than I was used to, and the water from the water fountain tasted fresher than anything I had ever drank. It was a whole different level of life than what I’d experienced in Ukraine.

“I had heard one magic word whispered over and over. I thought, That must be what America smells and looks and tastes like.

“Freedom.

“From JFK, we went to the home of relatives, the family of my grandmother’s cousins, Garik and his wife, Sveta. They had a son named Dima, who had two boys: an older stepson, Damian, who was around Maks’s age, and a younger son, Brian, who was my age.

“A time-honored immigrant tradition required that those who came before host families who arrived later. But it stung a little, to come to America, hat in hand, and join Dima, a sort-of cousin who in Odessa my father had always considered something of an insignificant little punk. Dima had left Russia with his parents in 1977 and was now a grown man, living in a forty-story building in the Brooklyn neighborhood of We st Brighton and enjoying an established life in the States. It wasn’t like he was a gazillionaire – there were no one percenters walking around these streets – but Dima was solidly middle class.

“I looked around and thought the whole arrangement was incredible – the towering apartment complex, the playground that was right on the grounds, the clean sidewalks, the green patches of lawn. And not a single broken-down Zaporozhets in sight.”

Chmerkovskiy collaborated and competed with his brother and fellow Dancing with the Stars sensation, Maksim, who is also known as “Maks.” They also went about assimilating together, and the challenges that came with it, including when Maks was attacked for his new rollerblades.

Val and Maks barely escaped being in downtown Manhattan the morning of September 11, 2001 when the Twin Towers were attacked.

Chmerkovskiy goes into his feelings at this time, just as he was on the brink of a breakthrough in his burgeoning dance career and training for the upcoming World Championships in Italy.

Val writes, “I began to train with a vengeance, channeling my anger, fear, and hurt into making my muscles scream for relief. A combination of factors figured in, not only the events of 9/11, but my responsibilities to my parents and brother, my third-place finishes in recent competitions, and my unyielding determination as an immigrant to do my country proud.

“Most mornings before school, my father would take me to a track at a nearby Boys & Girls Club. I’d put on my headphones and listen to Nas’s It Was Written, running laps until I dropped. I would swim twice a week, too, run the other days, and I came to love the burn.

“No one else in ballroom dance was doing anything like that. Especially in the United States, dancers weren’t generally into body conditioning. They treated ballroom as a hobby, while I had begun treating it as an athletic enterprise, as well as a lifeline in terms of despair. Working out saved me.

“There was no accepted exercise regimen for ballroom dacing back then, and I had no one to look to for a blueprint. The more it hurt the more I loved it, because the more I knew I was growing.

“‘If you cheat on your road work in the dark of the morning,’ said the boxer Joe Louis, ‘you will be found out in the big fight under the bright lights.’

“I had tunnel vision, focusing on the belief that hard work would always pay off.

“In the middle of October 2001, we headed off to Italy for the Junior Worlds once again: my father, my partner, Diana, and her mom, Yelena, and dad, Valodya.

“This time around we didn’t lose our luggage. This time we weren’t rookie outsiders. This time we were ready.”

Chmerkovskiy writes about a walk he took in Turin with his father the night before the competition started, and then he writes of the big day, “That morning I danced in competition with a little American flag sewn into my shirt. It really wasn’t something that you do in ballroom dancing, not at all. There was a high risk of offending the traditions and conventions of the dance world. I also had a tracksuit with an American flag on the front and ‘USA’ emblazoned on the back in large letters.

“You could say it was too much, that it was jingoistic, but you have to bring yourself back to the period I’m talking about. Many Americans were driving around with the Stars an Striped on their car antennas.  As a display of patriotism, it wasn’t much, but as a country we were desperate for solidarity.

“This wasn’t to say I walked around after 9/11 pounding on my chest shouting, ‘America! America!’ Yes, there was a huge sense of pride in my country, but that pride was there before the World Trade Center was attacked and will be there forever afterward, too…

“The announcers called out the sixth place couple, fifth place, fourth place, third place…and Deena and I had wound up in the top two. We were either going to win or be the runners-up.

“I stood back. As I’ve said, I’m not much of a religious person at all. I was raised with plenty of tradition and culture, with Eastern European and Jewish influences, but I didn’t have that intimate a link with organized religion.

“I had my relationship with God through dance. I have such a great appreciation for the spirit of the universe, a connection that flows directly from my heart. I felt it strongly at that moment. Fingers crossed, I was praying for a win.

“Then a spill of Italian words echoed in the hall, and the announcers named Deena and me winners of the 2001 Junior World Latin Dance Championship.

“What happened next was pure chaos. The word ‘celebration’ took on a whole new definition. My dad ran over, grabbed the American flag, and raced up and down the floor, leading the chant of ‘U-S-A! U-S-A!’ As shocked as everyone was initially, soon afterward the entire arena in this little town in Italy began chanting the three-letter abbreviation of my home country.”

This was one of the many intimate and inspiring stories meant to offer hope and motivation not only to his fans, but to anyone with a dream.

Robin Roberts said of I’ll Never Change My Name and her good friend Val, whom she worked with on a dance for her 50th birthday party on Good Morning America, “Valentin Aleksandrovich Chmerkovskiy is proud of his name and I’m proud of my dear friend for that and so much more. Reading his moving memoir, you’ll discover that he’s more than his name, more than Maks’s little brother, and more than the talented dancer millions see on Dancing with the Stars. Val will never change his name and I’m sure he’ll never change being the man I’ve come to love, respect, and admire. Val embodies what it means to live the American dream.”

Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant said of Chmerkovskiy, “One of the first things I ever said to Val when I got to know him was, ‘You’ve got to get your story out so people can be inspired by it.’  With this book he’s done that and more…it’s funny, smart and extremely creative.”

I’ll Never Change My Name reveals the man Chmerkovskiy is, what he has gone through to get here, and how he channels all of those emotions into those incredible dances we see every week.

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