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Behind the scenes of figure skating - April 17

Karina Smirnoff dishes from backstage at DWTS

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
(04/17/2008) - As Dancing with the Stars (DWTS) heads into the second half of season six, there are seven couples left, all of who can really dance. So icenetwork.com decided to ask figure-skater-turned-ballroom-dancer Karina Smirnoff to give us an idea what really goes on behind the scenes.

"Mondays are the craziest energy," she says. "Everybody is getting ready. We're all having fun. Monday is honestly the best night. Then the energy goes from being at the very top of the world to the very bottom on Tuesday. We're all there supporting each other, but at the same time we're all scared that we can be the one going home. On Mondays, a lot of people like to go out after the show and let their hair down. I'm usually so tired on Monday nights that I want to get a good night's sleep, because I know on Tuesday I'll start choreographing. That's when I get my music.

"Tuesdays we come to the show. It's all quiet. Somebody goes home and we're all upset. Some people go rehearse. Some people go home.

"Wednesdays, you feel absolutely exhausted, but you kind of have to find a second wind within yourself to come back and start learning a new dance. You do find the new energy, because you're excited to be back on the show."

Smirnoff says it varies when the couples find out what they'll be dancing the following week. Sometimes they know as early as Sunday, sometimes they don't find out until Tuesday night. She starts the choreography process in her head as soon as she gets the music, so when she gets into the rehearsal studio with her celebrity, she's ready to teach him.

This season, Smirnoff is dancing with R&B singing sensation Mario (he doesn't use a last name professionally). Along with Olympic figure skating champion Kristi Yamaguchi, Mario has been pegged as someone who has come to DWTS with a lot of dance experience.

"In the beginning, it didn't bother me, but it's starting to bother me more and more," Smirnoff says. "Watch any of his videos or even the dance movie Step Up, he was playing a musical artist. He had not even one dancing step.

"When they say, 'He's a dancer,' I say, 'Please show that to me. Maybe I can incorporate those steps into our choreography.'"

She is totally impressed with his willingness to learn each dance. She's even more impressed with his character, kindness and determination to succeed in life after a very rough childhood and adolescence. Smirnoff hopes one of the packages that air before each couple dances will let viewers in on some of the obstacles Mario has overcome in his young life (at 21, he's the youngest competitor on the show).

"Once you get past week five, that's where it really comes down to having your personality play a huge role in the voting process," she says. "If you have someone who can move, looks good on the floor, has a great personality and comes across well on camera -- is funny, charming and where you can actually see the true person-that's when you know you have a great competition."

While Yamaguchi has consistently gotten the best scores from the judges, Smirnoff points to NFL star Jason Taylor's coolness, smoothness, good looks and presence on the dance floor. "That's a dangerous weapon to have," she says. "It is as much a personality contest as it is a dancing competition."

As is commonly known but never publicly confirmed, Smirnoff's partner off the dance floor is her celebrity partner from season three, Mario Lopez. That hasn't stopped speculation about a brewing romance with her current partner, Mario.

"If people are speculating about you and your partner having chemistry and taking it past the dance floor, you kind of take it as a compliment, because that means you're doing a good job acting out a romance on the dance floor," Smirnoff notes while making it clear, "There is absolutely nothing romantic between us."

When asked if Yamaguchi's skating background gives her an advantage in the competition, former skater Smirnoff does say yes, in terms of her years of ballet training. But Yamaguchi's greatest advantage is that of being a disciplined athlete -- a trait she shares with the winners the past three seasons: Emmitt Smith, Apolo Anton Ohno and Helio Castroneves.

"She knows the best approach to take in order to achieve the best result," Smirnoff explains.

I'm not one much for predictions, but I think it will be Yamaguchi, Taylor and Mario in the final. "Going up against an Olympic gold medalist and an NFL superstar with amazingly good looks," Smirnoff says, "I'll be honored to be with Mario in that position."