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2011 was Karina Smirnoff's year. The long-time pro dancer on "Dancing with the Stars" had gotten close to nabbing that mirrorball trophy in past seasons. But it wasn't until last year - lucky season 13 - that she partnered with Army veteran and actor J.R. Martinez to win the whole shebang.
The duo is coming to Mohegan Sun Sunday for the casino's Reality Check series. They'll give a perfomance and do a signing.
Smirnoff, who grew up in the Ukraine, has racked up all sorts of dance titles. Among them: she is also a five-time U.S. National Champion and World Trophy Champion. Oh, and, besides being a dancer, she also has two degrees from Fordham University - bachelor degrees in economics and information systems programming.
She's been on 10 of the "Dancing with the Stars" seasons, teaming with such celebs as Billy Ray Cyrus, Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino and Mario Lopez.
Earlier this week, the effervescent Smirnoff took time to chat.
She loved working with Martinez:
"It was amazing. J.R. is definitely someone that we don't get to meet every day. He's got positivity, his personality, his smile. He's an amazingly hard worker. I think together, more than anything, we were a team. We found a way to make each other do better, do more, work harder. I think it definitely showed. Every single week, we tried our best to do something different. You know, there's just not many ways you can do a waltz. So we tried to do it a way that hasn't been done before."
Smirnoff didn't expect to end up victorious:
"I didn't believe we were going to win till the very end. It wasn't because I didn't think he was good enough or I was good enough. It was just, I think, subconsciously, it was easier to handle the pressure if I kept thinking, it's okay, we've gotten to the finals, I'm happy either way. ... Everyone kept telling me, you might win, you might win. They kept putting so much pressure on us. I didn't want that to interfere with the creative process. I actually bet people money, believe it or not, that we weren't going to win. ... two-and-a-half grand. I was very confident, let me tell you, I was very confident we weren't going to win."
Smirnoff starting dancing - although it was ballet - early on, at age five:
"I started out with a lot of different arts-slash-sports. I started with figure skating, then I did ballet and then gymnastics. With ballroom dancing, it is a sport because it's very athletic. I mean, I've had three knee surgeries and a neck surgery, so I can vouch for how athletic that is. But it's also a form of art. To me, people act and they have conversations, they have monologues, dialogues when they're acting. We act with our bodies. We create stories, we create movies, we create music through the movement of the body in space. To me, that's the best part about dancing because you get to express yourself without words.
"Obviously, growing up, being a girl, the showbiz side of ballroom dancing played a huge part. In ballet, you know, it's leotard and tutu. Doesn't get too exciting. In gymnastics, you're pretty much wearing a body suit. With ballroom dancing, I got to expand into rhinestones, and (it's) fashion because you get to create your own costumes and you get to wear make-up. It was the perfect combination of art, sports and showbiz."
The most recent season of "Dancing with the Stars" was criticized for a celeb cast that didn't engage the public the way that past casts have. Here's Smirnoff's take:
"There is an element to that I can agree with, but we always have some sort of controversy. If the public likes the cast and everything's happy about that, then the controversy's, well, is it fair that he or she is a different type of dancer (meaning non-ballroom dancer)? ... There's always something, in a way, to complain about. Which is good - as long as we discuss the show, it keeps it relevant and going. But I feel like we do a great job because we have characters from a different area of the industry every single time. We have the reality star, we have the war hero, we have the athlete. There is one for every taste, which is one of the reasons why the show is so successful, because it pulls in so many different demographics."
The relationships don't necessarily end after the show wraps:
"I'm good friends with most of my partners. I'm probably best friends and the closest friend with my season 12 partner, Ralph Macchio. He is a dear friend, and his family is unbelievable. We rang into the New Year together. We try to see each other as much as we can. Some people do become part of your life after that experience. You get to see each other at your worst, at your best, at your strongest, at your most vulnerable. So you really grow together as a team. After 10 hours a day for three-and-a-half months, you get tired of that person, you can't wait to have an opportunity to miss them. But, at the same time, you grow so close together."
J.R. Martinez and Karina Smirnoff, 1 p.m. Sunday, The Shops at Mohegan Sun; Q&A, dance performance, then signing event at 2 p.m.; free; mohegansun.com; karinasmirnoff.com; her twitter is @karina_smirnoff