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Maksim Chmerkovskiy on Why He Moved to 'So You Think You Can Dance' and What He Loved About 'The Traitors'

Maksim Chmerkovskiy

When Parade spoke to Maksim Chmerkovskiy last year, he told us that he would always be a fan of Dancing with the Stars, but that he had already done that show—including a season as a judge on DWTS Ukraine, so it was time for him to move on—with the exception of returning for the tribute to Len Goodman last season.

And now we know what he’s moving on to. Maks is one of the new judges for Season 18 of So You Think You Can Dance, along with Comfort Fedoke, Allison Holker and JoJo Siwa, who was added at the last minute to replace Nigel Lythgoe when legal issues made it necessary for him to stand down.

“I want to be a part of a platform that produces dance talent moving forward,” Maks told Parade about his new gig. “Where I can say, ‘Hey, I was part of that selection,’ and hopefully, this stays and lasts 10 years from now, and I’m looking back at somebody who I commented on as a dancer who’s now a megastar.”

Unlike Dancing with the Stars which features celebrities, the focus of So You Think You Can Dance is finding new talent. In fact, SYTYCD has produced several dancers who have gone on to successful careers and they weren’t necessarily the winners. People like Ariana Debose, the late Stephen "tWitch" Boss, Witney Carson and this season’s judges Comfort and Allison are among them.

And that is its appeal for Maks. As part of Season 18, SYTYCD will introduce a new format reflecting the authentic experience of building a successful career in dance. Each week, contestants will compete in new, intense dance challenges that will give them a taste of the career, from performing in a music video or a football halftime show to going toe-to-toe on stage with a Broadway performer.

Maksim Chmerkovskiy, Cat Deeley, Allison Holker, and Jojo Siwa<p>CR: Tom Girscom/FOX</p>
Maksim Chmerkovskiy, Cat Deeley, Allison Holker, and Jojo Siwa

CR: Tom Girscom/FOX

“The Top 10 is living in a house together, it’s like an element of Big Brother,” Maks explains. “What I love about this is that it’s always a community. Even if we don’t sleep in the same house, whenever there’s a guest, putting together a show or a big performance, it’s 24/7 and one bad apple ruins the entire thing. So, for us, it was also interesting to see how people get along, how they relate to each other, how they are able to function as a team, if that’s necessary.”

Related: Maksim and Valentin Chmerkovskiy on Their Dancing with the Stars Future Plans

Part of what the dancers will be scored on is how they figure out the daily challenges and respond to them, which will be covered in a documentary-style look at the contestants’ dynamics, following them throughout the competition as they go through their personal and competitive journeys. Eliminations will still take place weekly, with the Top 3 finalists competing in the season’s spectacular finale, but only one will win the $100,000 grand prize and be crowned the winner.

“One of the negatives in latter seasons of So You Think You Can Dance, in my opinion, was that the show was becoming about the choreographers and not the performers,” Maks says. “And so, for me, the focus now is going to be solely on the participants, their stories, their processes, and choreographers are going to come in more of letting them know how to do this better and not like, “Look at me, this is who I am and this is what I’m about.”

What made you want to join So You Think You Can Dance?

There are successful people that So You Think You Can Dance produced, and that’s why the project is coming back. The show is going to have new energy because it’s going to be very, very fresh. Everybody’s new on the production side, and I know them from their having produced from Dancing with the Stars to other dance projects around the medium in the past 10-15 years. And so, I’m just excited to be part of that production that way, this time.

You were recently on The Traitors, it begs the question: On SYTYCD, you’re judging so you’re not competing anymore, and I was wondering if you joined The Traitors because you miss the element, the excitement of competing on DWTS?

No, I wanted to go to Scotland and spend time with the cast and with Alan [Cumming]. I’m being actually serious. I’ve done competitions on television. At the time that we were filming it, [son] Rio was a couple of months old, and the last thing I needed to do was go away and spend time. So no, it wasn’t for the love of competition, it was for the fact that it gave me this moment in time. I came back from all the turmoil and ups and downs of the last year in terms of the craziness that was happening with a new child, the residency. I took 24 flights in three months, it was insane.

Related: Maksim Chmerkovskiy Joined The Traitors Because He Missed DWTS

So, this was my moment of finding myself somewhere else. It’s one of those, you come to somebody’s house with your spouse, and you think it’s going to be a normal evening of having drinks, talking, and going home. And they’re like, “We’re going to play a game.” You’re like, “These people are weird.” And at the end of the night, you’re like, “This is the best night I had in a long time.” That is The Traitors to me. I found myself in the best situation, I had a great time, back to reality, and I’m very happy.

Did you know your fellow judges Allison and Comfort? What’s the chemistry like on the panel?

I know Allison very well. Obviously, she had a great showing on Dancing with the Stars, and she comes from the So You Think family, she’s very close with that production and everybody. There’s a group of dancers that went through the So You Think You Can Dance competition and came out and moved onto big job opportunities. This show is that kind of throughline for me. I’m here to be a part of selecting talent that has an open-door policy in the entertainment industry and can start making money as a dance professional right away.

To me that’s important to be clear, because we’re here not just for the kumbaya of how cute it is to dance, but also as a representative of someone who has a family to feed. This is my industry and this is my career path, so I want to give people an opportunity to say, “You can do that. You can be happy financially and so on and so forth,” so we’re here to produce that type of winner. I think somebody like Allison, somebody like Comfort, they do represent those people who come from So You Think and have achieved some fame elsewhere. And although I did not go through the So You Think You Can Dance gauntlet to get the job, I respect this process as a selection process.

Related: Derek Hough and the DWTS Pros Share Their Feelings on Dancing in the Len Goodman Tribute

Your background is ballroom, but So You Think You Can Dance also does tap and hip hop and modern, so how does your experience translate to those other forms of dance?

It might not. It only translates in my background of experience. Len Goodman also never did hip hop, by the way, but he didn’t have to. The opportunity here is to say that I’ve also tried stuff, but also the 17 seasons of Dancing with the Stars was not one dance a season. We had a flow of choreographers, we were constantly thrown choreography that we weren’t comfortable with, the ballroom guys and girls learned other dance styles on the job that we never practiced at before. So, I have a vast background in live performance, in stage performance, in commercial dance.

Because no matter who you are, or where your foundation comes from, we all end up in this melting pot of commercial dancing on television. And so, if your strong suit is ballroom, this will come up, if your strong suit is hip hop, this will come up. But I’m going to tell you right now, ballroom is king, because the most beautiful form of dance presentation is still partnering, and this is where we come in as we know how to partner and jell and make a couple the best way. So, I’m looking forward to offering my expertise in what I know, but also in what I know by rubbing shoulders with some of the best tappers, with some of the best hip hoppers, with some of the best lyrical dancers. It’s very exciting.

Maksim Chmerkovskiy, Comfort Fedoke, and Allison Holker<p>CR: Tom Griscom/FOX</p>
Maksim Chmerkovskiy, Comfort Fedoke, and Allison Holker

CR: Tom Griscom/FOX

What are you looking for in the dancers? How do you think this season’s competitors stack up against what you’re looking for?

At the end of the day, I’m looking for whoever’s crowned the winner of this season of So You Think, knowing we did the right thing. I’m looking at a person who is ready right now to be put into rehearsal with the Beyoncés of this world or spearhead, if not be a dance team captain for some Taylor Swift project. I want somebody who’s able to do it all, who is mentally present to be able to do everything, and someone who I could see working with myself.

I demand a lot. If it’s Val [Chmerkovskiy] and me and we’re working together, and it’s a Maks and Val project, he demands the personality and what he wants out of the vibe in the room, I demand that this person shows up and works their butt off no matter how they feel. So, this is a lot of stuff, we represent that type of job giver, if you will. So, I want my champion this season to be the best commercial dancer that this industry has seen, at the very least this year, and then we’ll move on from there.

Related: Peta Murgatroyd and Maksim Chmerkovskiy Dish on Dancing with the Stars Host, Future of Show and More

When you first saw the dancers and they started competing after the auditions, was the person who actually wins, did they stand out right away or were there surprises along the way? Do people go up and down in their performances and so it’s a guessing game until the end?

No, we see right away a lot, but it’s still an iceberg. If somebody judged me right away by what was presented first, I would never have made it. Somebody gave me a lot of chances and took chances on me because they thought there’s something else there. I’m really looking at it the same way.

As an audience, I can already tell that there are more than a few people that you will not see what you’re getting until the end. You’re going to see something and then they’ll start moving and be like, “Wow, I’m shocked, I never expected that. What else can she do? What else can he show that we did not expect?” Look, we’re making a TV project here, we shouldn’t forget that, and there’s got to be a level of excitement for the audience. I promise you; this is going to be a very exciting season.

Peta Murgatroyd, Shai Aleksander Chmerkovskiy, and Maksim Chmerkovskiy<p>Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/GA/The Hollywood Reporter via Getty Images</p>
Peta Murgatroyd, Shai Aleksander Chmerkovskiy, and Maksim Chmerkovskiy

Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/GA/The Hollywood Reporter via Getty Images

A lot of the stuff that you’re doing now for your career didn’t exist when you began as a dancer. Where did you hope your career was going to take you? And how surprised are you to be doing what you’re doing now?

My focus has always been on what I want for my family, it wasn’t what I want for my career. Maybe that’s why I don’t have trophies on the wall behind me, I’ve got pictures of my kids and my wife. To me, I know it may sound corny, I’m the guy who watches interviews going, “Oh, give me a break, this dude is trying to run for office.” You know me, you’ve seen me speak from the heart, you know I never lie because I’ll forget this interview immediately, and if you ask me two years from now, I’ll say the same thing. [My family is] my trophies. They are what I’m always about.

I could have been a plumber. I would have tried my best to be the best plumber that ever existed. I happen to be a dancer and I happen to be in this industry, and I’ve got to make my best moves. And right now, I can tell you on the heels of 20 years, over the past 20 years of every up and down, I’m in the best place I’ve ever been. So, I’m just so excited, you can probably tell.

There’s an Instagram video posted of you dancing with your son. Is he interested in dance? What’s life with the baby like?

It’s what every parent says about how obsessed you get with your kids. We’re obsessed. I’m obsessed with everything. I’m obsessed with our family, including our dog. I’m obsessed with the way we look. It’s a pinch me moment. I wake up next to Peta Murgatroyd, and I get kisses from my seven-year-old, and then she brings the baby, and the baby just can’t stop laughing. I mean, I’m blessed. Everything that I dreamt of, I’m living it now.

So You Think You Can Dance premieres its 18th season tonight at 9 p.m. ET/PT on FOX.

Next, DWTS' Peta Murgatroyd Surprises Maksim Chmerkovskiy With 'Unexpected' Family Announcement