“DWTS” OGs Ready a 'Love Letter' to Len Goodman as They Remember the 'Glint' in Late Head Judge's Eye (Exclusive)

Former 'DWTS' pros Maksim Chmerkovskiy, Kym Johnson-Herjavec, Tony Dovolani and Karina Smirnoff tell PEOPLE that Tuesday’s tribute performance to Goodman will be "a really touching moment"

Len Goodman
Len Goodman

Maks Chmerkovskiy, Kym Johnson-Herjavec, Tony Dovolani and Karina Smirnoff are returning to the Dancing with the Stars ballroom on Tuesday to honor late head judge Len Goodman.

The former DWTS pros exclusively open up to PEOPLE about their memories of Goodman — who died at age 78 in April 2022, four months after announcing his retirement from the ABC dance competition — and what fans can expect from the “touching” tribute performance, which also includes current pros and alums Anna Trebunskaya, Edyta Śliwińska, Louis van Amstel and Mark Ballas.

Johnson-Herjavec remembers Goodman as “being so wonderful” during her time on the show from 2006 to 2015, adding, “He could be having his grumpy days, as he'd be grumpy Len, but he'd always do it with a little glint in his eye and that cheeky wit that he had.”

“You knew that you were going to hear exactly the truth from Len, whether you liked it or not, but he did it in such a heartfelt way with his humor that he had,” continues Johnson-Herjavec, 47. “And then when you did get that 10 from Len, it was the greatest feeling ever.”

Related: 'Dancing with the Stars' Honors Late Judge Len Goodman During Season 32 Premiere

Maksim Chmerkovsky and Kym Johnson-Herjavec
Maksim Chmerkovsky and Kym Johnson-Herjavec

Smirnoff, 45, recalls Goodman’s impact on her and other professional dancers over the years.

“For me, from competitive years when I was still an amateur and a pro before Dancing with the Stars was created in England and in the United States, Len was a huge part of our world. He judged, he coached, he always had the most vibrant personality,” she shares.

The 18-season pro adds, “So of course when the show started and then he became a judge on the show, it was a no-brainer because he had that charisma and that personality that just stood out. So to be able to remember, respect, let people know the meaning of Len to all of us dancers, because he's a ballroom dad — but with Dancing with the Stars and Strictly Come Dancing he became a world ballroom dad.”

Related: Alfonso Ribeiro Promises 'DWTS' Season 32 Will Honor Len Goodman's Legacy: 'There Won't Be a Dry Eye'

<p>Gabe Ginsberg/Getty; Frazer Harrison/Getty</p> Tony Dovolani and Karina Smirnoff

Gabe Ginsberg/Getty; Frazer Harrison/Getty

Tony Dovolani and Karina Smirnoff

Chmerkovskiy, 43, also remembers Goodman’s “specific presence” in the ballroom, sharing, “He did exactly what he was meant to. He was the anchoring entity of [the] true ballroom world. And in the sense of where it stems from, he almost represented the founding. The foundation of it all.”

During his 17 seasons competing on DWTS, the pro recalls receiving advice from Goodman away from the judges’ table. When asked the best guidance he received from the late television personality, he responds, “They weren't really dance advice. They were just life advice. And I think he was able to parlay that and not really dwell so much on giving people advice about the cha cha."

Dovolani, 50, also recalls having “inside jokes” with Goodman: “We would razz each other, and we would poke each other without anybody really realizing what we're doing to each other, which was kind of fun. So we had our own little secret language between Len and myself.”

“Family was very, very important to him, and so it is as well to me, and we shared that respect for one another, that knowing that our values were very correct, very well placed. He was very funny,” he continues. “He said, ‘Don't listen to my criticism, but really don't listen to my compliments as well.’

“He was the elder statesman that had the balance of the show in his hand,” he adds. “He never let the show go too far left or too far right. He kept it in the middle, and whenever things went awry a little bit, he brought it back to what it's about. And that's what I love about Len, is that he had that aura about him, that when you saw him, you knew you were in something special.”

Related: Len Goodman Looked Back on His Most Memorable 'DWTS' Moments in Final PEOPLE Interview Before His Death

Eric McCandless via Getty Images Len Goodman
Eric McCandless via Getty Images Len Goodman

As for the tribute — which is choreographed by Jenna Johnson and husband Val Chmerkovskiy — Smirnoff promises it will be a “love letter” to the late head judge.

“So to come back and read that love letter or dance that love letter to him saying thank you for his input into our world, I think it's a no-brainer,” she says of her decision to return for the performance. “We are all excited and grateful to have that opportunity and for the show to be able to give that to us.”

Maks Chmerkovskiy, who is Val's older brother, shares that it’s an honor to return to the ballroom because “there's no me without Len,” adding, “And that's the reality. So whenever there's an opportunity to pay respect, I think I would love to be a part of that.”

Johnson-Herjavec says the tribute will be “more of a traditional dance.”

“I think it's probably a waltz, as that's what Len would've loved,” she notes. “That's what he was known for. He didn't like the gimmicks. He liked straight-up dancing, and I'm pretty sure it's going to be very beautiful, very classic — like Len, really.”

According to Dovolani, “It's a classic dance that really requires a lot of, as Len would say, just the right amount of zazz so he liked classical dances, and that's exactly what we're going to do for him.”

Johnson-Herjavec sums up, “He loved the ballroom, he loved the standard. So I think it's going to be so nice seeing the current pros and then some of the old pros coming back to pay our respect to him. I think it's going to be a really touching moment.”

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Dancing with the Stars airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on ABC and Disney+.

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