Dance- A Healing Art
By Karina Gordin
Maksim Chmerkovskiy earned the reputation of “ballroom’s bad boy,” on Dancing with the Stars, but off the dance floor he’s long been regarded as a role model— championing health and wellness to his fans and growing family. “On TV you see a dance pro, but what many don’t know is that this same dance pro once faced potentially career-ending health challenges,” Maksim reveals. “My road to recovery was a learning process and now it's my mission to share what I learned and help others.” Maksim largely credits a healthful diet and lifestyle for his prompt return to dance, and now hopes to spread awareness about the important role nutrition and dance play in optimal health and recovery.
MC: Before we begin, I’d like to first give you some background. Dancing with the Stars has been an incredible journey, but it’s brutal on the body, just brutal. Yes, the rehearsals and scheduling were very fast paced, but it’s more than that. People assume I spent a couple of hours per day rehearsing and then leave and move on. That is incorrect. More like, we have a couple of rehearsals per day. That is reasonable for a dance show, but then you factor in your celebrity. It’s an honor to work with them, I feel very blessed, but they usually have very little dance experience. You’re not dancing with a professional so you have to constantly compensate physically for the celebrity’s limitations and perform ranges of motion that can be uncomfortable or taxing. On TV, what you’re seeing are energetic, professional dancesport athletes. What you’re not seeing is the stress that Dancing with the Stars puts on our bodies because of the nature of who we compete with. Again, I am not complaining, I just want to put this profession into perspective before we start discussing my approach to dealing with injuries and what works best for me. Writing about health, you probably know it’s all about diet and exercise regimens, about optimal training, and most importantly the rehabilitation.
KG: What is your approach to rehabilitation?
MC: Contrast hydrotherapy, massages, cupping, stretching, getting enough sleep, NormaTec pants. But on Dancing with the Stars, I’d be lucky if I ate. In a typical day I would go from rehearsal, to an interview, back to rehearsal. The interview could be an injury risk in itself. For an interview, I have to clean up, look presentable, I sit with the host chatting, so inevitably after all that my body has cooled down. At this point I’m no longer warmed up, but I have to jump up and head back to the studio to rehearse the “pro number,” — that’s where dance professionals perform together. As expected, the range of motion is greater for these numbers— more knee and ankle flexion, hip rotation, lower-back and hamstring flexibility. After cooling down though, my range of motion is diminished, so I’m prone to injury.
KG: Is that how you sustained a microscopic medial calf tear?
MC: You could say I really let my body cool down— my son was born. I ended up taking time off from Dancing with the Stars to focus on my family and neglected my training routine. Eventually, when I felt ready and returned to the show, I was understandably not as physically fit as I probably should’ve been. Plus, I had again resumed my training routine and was really sore. During a particularly physically intensive dance, the jive, I put too much pressure on the Achilles tendon, and my calf was not ready. I felt a really sharp pain in my calf like somebody hit it. I have to say, though, it could’ve been far worse. My son was born, and my world turned upside down, but the whole time I kept to a strict dietary regimen. I may not have been disciplined with my training, but I maintained a healthy diet and lifestyle. So, although I did sustain an injury, the extent of the injury long-term was much less severe than if I wasn’t disciplined with my health first and foremost. I will personally attest to the fact that a healthy diet is the most important criteria for musculoskeletal health. You cannot sustain exercise of any level if you do not fuel your body with fruits, vegetables, nuts, protein, and healthy fats (whole foods). And water. Water lubricates your joints, it boosts exercise performance, it flushes out toxins—you need water. Even if you work behind the register, or sit for work, drink water. I don’t recommend ice cold water— maybe it’s a cultural thing— but chilled water is said to affect digestion and lowers your core body temperature.
KG: While we’re on the subject of ice-cold water— earlier you mentioned rehabbing with “contrast hydrotherapy,” can you briefly elaborate on that?
MC: I do recommend contrast hydrotherapy. Alternating between ice-cold and hot water. It can even be done in the shower. It’s cheap, fast, and safe. Before my son was born, I went on tour with my brother Val— we performed 53 shows in under two months. I was in top shape and remained injury-free in large part thanks to regular massages and contrast hydrotherapy. Immerse yourself in hot water and then immediately switch to cold, and repeat. That really stimulates your circulation, decreases swelling and helps control inflammation, and overall just really important for post-exercise recovery of your muscles.
KG: After your calf injury, I understand you took extra measures, including supplementing with peptides to hasten recovery?
MC: I work with amazing people who introduced me to peptides. I was able to compete on Dancing with the Stars for as long as I did because of peptides. About eight years ago, I completely changed my diet. I always knew not to drink soda, but I didn’t know about GMO foods, I didn’t know about peptides, so working with an amazing team of athletes I took my diet and lifestyle to a new level. I was blown away— so you’re telling me that more than half of the average grocery store is stocked with GMO foods? And even more than that is “food” that’s so processed your body wouldn’t even recognize it as food? Why it resonated with me, I don’t know, maybe it just takes being more open-minded. It’s exciting to learn these things and then seeing them for yourself. Shopping for that remaining 20 percent of food is eye-opening, and now I even avoid the bread aisle. Most breads are proinflammatory and rank high on the glycemic index because of the incredibly high sugar. You’re not eating a harmless bagel, what you’re eating are processed carbs, which enter the bloodstream rapidly causing a sugar spike, so in response your body has to work hard to produce the hormone insulin to basically drive out that glucose from the bloodstream. Then you eat that bagel again, and once more it spikes your blood glucose levels, and the prolonged cycle can cause a whole spectrum of illnesses. At this point your body is just trying to keep you normal, forget trying to achieve fitness or get to a certain athletic level— that’s no longer even an option. But to answer your question, after working on my nutrition I wanted to level up my health and learned about peptides, which help boost athletic performance (in a natural, organic way), protect connective tissue, and of course build-up muscle.
KG: About that— peptides are rather controversial and have earned a poor reputation in the sports industry for their growth promotion and performance-enhancing properties.
MC: I disagree with that, peptides are nothing like steroids. Peptides are not just about your muscles getting bigger, they’re about improving the quality of your life. Peptides facilitate recovery, reduce inflammation, and a whole host of other benefits. Yes, peptides can help bulk you up, but it wasn’t that for me at all and don’t think for a second it was. The goal isn’t to dance the fastest or jump the highest, no. The goal is to rehab and get a second lease on what I love to do without detriment to my body. The only reason I’m doing any of this stuff is because I want to live longer, I want to live healthier, I want to sustain this level of activity, but I want to also sustain my happiness. Mid-40’s you start visiting the doctor much more often, I don’t want to be that guy.
KG: I agree, and peptides serve many functions, including supporting joints and muscles.
MC: What more can I ask for as a professional dancer? Taking peptides and eating healthy sets your body up for rehabbing itself. Massages help, hydrotherapy helps, but if you’re not rehabbing on the inside, external measures can only help so much. Just as a side, I even get sick less now. And when I do get sick, I’m not lying in bed with fever and chills. Maybe I get some sniffles and my throat gets itchy, but I feel uncomfortable for only like half a day. Peptide optimization boosts your immune system. That and a good night’s rest, and I’m fine. It’s not rocket science, it’s just the right lifestyle.
KG: And thanks to this lifestyle you’re clearly not slowing down—
MC: I am still here, I am still very much at the top of my game, I’m still pursuing my goal of whipping my son’s butt at basketball when he’s 16 and taller than me. But I couldn’t have done any of this without the medical professionals in my life, it was definitely a coordinated effort.
KG: It takes two to tango, after all.
MG: It does, and knowledgeable medical staff can make such a difference. Look, not everyone has medical staff like professional athletes have. Most people are left to their own devices and left to figure this out on their own, so thank you, by the way, for spreading this important message and helping me carry this banner. I would most like to thank orthopedic surgeon Dr. William Seeds. He’s the one who introduced me to peptides and other natural therapies and it’s thanks to him I was back on my feet three days after the injury!
KG: What was Dr. Seeds’ treatment protocol?
MC: I will put you through to him and you could find out the details, but basically— platelet-rich plasma together with peptides. I flew out to Dr. Seeds and spent a week with him. During that time, he extracted some of my bone marrow stem cells, created a concentrate out of it, which he then mixed with platelet-rich plasma, and re-injected that solution into my site of injury. Three days after that procedure I was back on my feet. I spent about a day and a half on crutches all together, and a week after that I was basically dancing. Slowly, but dancing. Remember, a typical recovery takes about six-to-eight weeks, just to put it into perspective.
KG: You were a great candidate for platelet-rich plasma prolotherapy, and the treatment is quite straightforward— blood is drawn and separated (via centrifugation) into three layers: platelet-rich plasma (PRP), platelet-poor plasma (PPP), and red blood cells. In short, the PPP is discarded and the PRP is reinjected back into the site of injury. I’m thrilled to hear you received PRP— it’s a very effective, safe, and comparatively inexpensive treatment. Platelets are a natural source of growth factors that are responsible for healing and regeneration.
MC: That’s exactly it, and I regained my full range of motion. I jumped right back into the show. I don’t think that I came back too soon. And as you know, the show is live, everything happens right in front of your eyes, and you’re seeing me rehearse and perform in real-time. I wasn’t pre-shooting and airing my dances in pieces. No, you saw me dance three-and-a-half weeks after the injury, and so everyone who knows about the extent of my injury understands that this was an unprecedented recovery. Even now talking with you, I’m sitting drenched in sweat post workout, working on my hamstrings, quads, hip flexors. My hips were out of whack. It wasn’t just about this calf injury. Many don’t know this, but I had a massive trauma when I was 12 years old— I had shattered my right femur. I was already dancing then. I have been dancing since the age of four. When everything was put back together, a titanium rod was inserted and when time allowed, I went to have the rod taken out. Miraculous as my original surgery was that allowed me to have my leg back and continue to dance, the extraction of the rod was done in such malicious and amateur way that they complete dismantled my right hip flexor. Keep in mind, this is 1993 in Ukraine, and though a lot of progress was made, post USSR, there was still some neglect. I don’t want to get into politics, but the point is, there were some people that were amazing, but many were negligent, and I fell into the hands of a negligent doctor who did not put any effort into my case. When he took out the rod, I was in so much pain for weeks. For weeks. I was told that after removing the rod, it’s like getting your appendix removed, you can just get up and go. Well, I couldn’t, and it was so traumatizing to me, I didn’t understand what was wrong with me, nobody could explain it to me. Over the next years I figured out how to compensate for the very limited range of motion in my right hip, and that brings us to where we are today. I met Rashad Jennings on Dancing with the Stars, and he introduced me to his trainer. I started working with him, and I wish I knew all this when I was 20. But I’m making the best of it now, I’m going to continue dancing, and most importantly I’m going to pass this opportunity to my son.
KG: What are some of your training techniques with Rashad Jennings’ trainer?
MC: For the longest time, when I would use my right leg to step up, I would feel sharp pain outside of my right knee. I thought there was something wrong with my knee but working with the trainer I discovered it was my ankle! We went through various exercises to improve my ankle mobility and recover the signals being sent to the brain to reconnect some of the muscles that weren’t firing. Isn’t it funny how the brain could just shut off signaling to this part of the muscle?
KG: I have to ask if you’ve experimented with acupuncture, homeopathy, or other more alternative therapies.
MC: Dry needling. I experience immediate relief and therefore immediate feedback. Whether you have a severe spasm or a small muscle knot, dry needling is like a miracle. We’re talking three seconds, four seconds of inserting the needles and they do this twisting thing with the needles and you feel relief. I am a big fan of dry needling. We shouldn’t not be allowed access to this treatment just because of some vague notions the medical industry may have that it’s not legitimate. I am also a big fan of saunas.
KG: Infrared sauna?
MC: I was put on an infrared sauna regimen for a little bit, but I prefer the banya. It’s a Russian sauna where the heat is very dry and penetrating. Again, with my culture— I have that Russian, Ukrainian in me— in my culture we go to banya. With my banya routine, once I feel really heated on the inside, I come out and take a cold plunge. The pool is maintained at about 6 degrees Celsius. Quite a drastic difference, so you go from 120 degrees Celsius in a dry room to a 6-degree plunge, and your body releases a healing protein. It’s that release of protein that you don’t get in any other activity. I also drink an amino acid mix in water to stay hydrated, and it gives me the extra healing boost. The next day I feel even better.
KG: Have you tried cold-laser therapy or any tech-based recovery systems?
MC: I can recommend NormaTec pants. This system massages your legs and essentially re-circulates oxygenated blood back toward your heart and then toward your extremities. I’m not a spokesperson for the company or anything, but it definitely works for me. After 30 minutes of this with your legs elevated above your heart, it really rehabs. But you tell me, how can it be otherwise? So that’s a perfect day. I wake up, warmup, have a beautiful protein-rich meal and supplement with vitamins like K2 to offset some of the carcinogens that can be in my meat, then a long rehearsal, followed by banya. I do the hot, I do the cold, sip on aminos, I go home and eat a hearty meal, use my NormaTec pants for about 50 minutes, flush everything out of my legs, play with my son, and go to bed. That allows me to start over fresh and pain free. This has been an amazing journey, and a privilege.
KG: That is a perfect day, but do you think this approach can benefit everyone, or largely athletes?
MC: I can’t stress enough, in my immigrant, not-English-as-my-first-language accent, that it’s for everyone. I will make it my mission to explain to everybody the necessity of this. People say, “I like chocolate cake and there’s nothing I can do about that.” What do you mean you can’t do anything about that? It’s your mouth. No one’s holding the fork and force-feeding you the chocolate cake. I love chocolate cake! I love dessert, but I love feeling good even more. You don’t have to be like me and drink aminos while alternating between freezing cold and sweltering hot temperatures. No, you can do contrast hydrotherapy in your own shower and drink coconut water. My point is, yes, this is for everyone. It HAS TO BE for everyone. You know, growing up, my grandparents had a farm and grew naturally organic food. Today in 2018 the organic food that they ate cheaply is so expensive at the supermarket. Who can afford that, right? I get that, but at the same time you can control what’s in your control, like not eating that chocolate cake, or not drinking that soda. When I was little, I hated being sent to my grandparents— they lived on a smelly farm with cows, chickens, no gaming systems like kids have now— but I remember waking up and gathering eggs straight from the chicken coop, or going to a stable, milking the cow and drinking it fresh out of a glass! Grandma would pick some stuff from the field and now you have your breakfast. And I just remember reading books under the peach tree and the cherry tree, and eating the fruits picked straight from the tree that moment. That is incredible, and an experience I would’ve loved for my son. We don’t have that now and it’s upsetting. What’s more upsetting is that I have to go to this market that charges an arm and a leg to get organic peaches that arrived from somewhere I don’t even know. The peach might be organic, but the soil is still probably depleted of the vitamins and minerals, so that’s where supplementing comes in.
KG: What is your supplement regimen like?
MC: I became a spokesperson for LivOn Labs because I really feel a difference taking their supplement line. They use a Liposome Encapsulation Technology, which essentially delivers more bioavailable nutrients to your body. If you have gastrointestinal issues for instance, not all the vitamins you take can be absorbed and carried to parts of the body that need them most. Liposomal nutrients, on the other hand, are in these protective bubbles of fat that are carried through the digestive system directly into your bloodstream. Besides that, every morning I take a probiotic, I take vitamin K2, 10,000 IU’s of vitamin D3, and krill oil. B-complex is important for nerve repair, and actually my father has been taking that and it’s really made a difference for him. In Ukraine we weren’t rich. All the money would go toward my dance lessons or Val’s dance and violin lessons. My dad had a herniated disc and we didn’t have money to pay for the best medicine and treatments. What happened was his herniated disc pressed on a nerve and essentially rendered it useless. His glutes and hamstrings started to atrophy. Moving here, my dad has access to LivOn Labs and other amazing supplements, and now he walks everywhere and recently even started going out for runs! I know you also spoke with Tony [Dovolani] and his approach is to source vitamins mainly from his diet, and that’s just as important. Personally speaking, supplements play an important role for me because I need that extra support.
KG: I think you and Tony might agree though— dancing is the best medicine.
MC: 100 percent. I am the co-owner of eleven Dance With Me dance studios. We have students of all ages and of all physical capabilities. Students with hip or ankle replacements, full knee reconstructions, you name it. They come in and after about six months of dancing, they regain muscles, they regain range of motion, they feel like themselves again. I’ve had older people that kicked away their canes and walkers and jive better than anyone out there. I’m sure Tony would agree that you have to do your research about where you dance and who teaches you, just like you have to do your research about what clinic you go to and what doctor treats you. This is your body, and dancing can indeed be the best medicine.