Q&A: Derek Hough
World of Dance judge Derek Hough has been on the move since age 12, when he and sister Julianne migrated from their native Utah to London to study dance. Both became ballroom competitors, gained fame on Dancing with the Stars, and toured together. Now he’s touring solo with Derek Hough: Live! and spoke with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen by phone from Cincinnati while fitting an outdoor walk into his itinerary.
You’re nearly halfway through a 60-city tour with a punishing schedule. How would you characterize it so far?
It’s amazing. It’s been really incredible. The energy, the response, the dancers are all incredible, and for the first time I have a live band. I have live musicians onstage with me and it just takes it to another level. It just really feels like a concert.
Is this a vision you’ve had for a while of what you would do with a solo tour if you had a live band?
Yeah, for me, whenever I got to a concert, having that live percussion or a live saxophone, you just can’t replicate that, that feeling or that sound. That was one of my first desires, was to have live musicians. The most challenging part of the show was putting the live music together, what the setlist was. I was very particular about the music choices because some songs were meant to be played live. When you hear it, you’re like, “This sounds even better live.” All the music I chose was designed around that, and I do everything from Latin to ballroom, big band music, contemporary, you name it. We did different arrangements, different medleys, mash-ups. The songs that you’ll recognize, they’re like different versions that we spiced up a little bit. It took quite a long time to put all of that together, to make that all happen, but it all paid off because the music is just sensational.
What goes into developing a production like this? Where do you start? Would you say it’s a contrast or an extension of your last tour?
For previous tours, I had a lot of LED screens, which are great. They’re fantastic for certain things, but for this I was like, “I’m going to have no LED screens, just lighting.” That way, it’s just about the dancing, about the performance. It’ll feel more theatrical. It’s been great, just the energy and the way the show flows, the engagement of the audience. It’s been a lot of hard work but it’s really paid off.
The audiences have been cited in reviews, garnering praise for having as much passion as the performers. What does that do for you as a performer?
I always feel like I need to earn my right to be on that stage. Every single show, every single night, I need to earn the right to be on that stage. I feel like when I go out there and give my absolute all, and I’m sharing my energy with them, I feel the audience can feel that. That’s what it’s all about, right? That shared energy between audience and performer.
This is a punishing tour. You’re packing a lot of dates into a short amount of time. How do you maintain a high level of motivation?
Part of it is my routine is very important. The routine that I do, healthy rituals that keep my body and my mind healthy and energetic, but what’s interesting is no matter how I’m feeling … yesterday morning I woke up kind of tired, just sore, but I have my physio. I have certain foods that I eat every night. I get my ice packs every single night, but for me what gets me really excited and really into it is my meet-and-greets. It’s so funny, I know people that do tours that kind of complain or they talk about the meet-and-greets, “Oh, I gotta do this.” I’m like, “Well, why do you do it?” because for me, I absolutely love my meet-and-greets and going to meet the audience, and take pictures with them and have the Q&A. What happens for me is it reminds me every single day about why I’m doing what I’m doing. It’s that connection. It’s that intimate relationship that you’re sharing, and so every single day I get re-energized and re-inspired to go out there and perform. I love it. For me, too, it’s not just about a show. For me, the sustainable energy comes from sharing something important, an important message or something that may inspire somebody or move somebody. In my life, it’s going to certain seminars or certain shows, and me hearing something at the right moment that will change my life and move me tremendously. I take this platform and this opportunity seriously, and if I’m able to do the same for somebody else, then for me it becomes less of doing a show and more of a mission.
You’ve talked before about a variety of influences that you drew on to create a customized self-help/self-motivation philosophy. Is that what you’re talking about? Are you getting what you believe in across in your performance?
Yeah, absolutely. For me, within my show, it’s pure entertainment, and the dancers in my show are so good. They are extraordinary. If you’re a fan of mine you’ll walk out being a fan of theirs as well. They are so good, and I hired the cream of the crop, top-level dancers that can do things I can’t do. I wanted to create the best show possible. … But as far as the philosophy goes, there’s moments when I get intimate, very personal and one-on-one, sort of just talking with the audience. Those are moments when I share things—I hope to leave the audience with something to sort of ponder and think about long after the show’s finished. The response has been beautiful. I did it the first couple of shows. I kind of spoke, and the response afterwards was overwhelming. And I went, “You know, I’m going to keep this in the show, and continue talking about it.” What gives me the energy is, what gives me that sustained fuel to knock out 50, 60 cities at the same time … is how can I make an impact and move somebody, not just from an entertainment aspect but on a personal level.
How did you wind up casting this? Did you have auditions or did you know who you wanted?
This time around I actually was more specific about the way I casted. I just kind of went straight to people that I was fans of and that I really loved their dancing. I went to the current champions in the Latin world, some of them casted straight off of World of Dance actually. They’re young, energetic, vibrant dancers who have the most amazing abilities.
Judging from the intro to Sunday night’s World of Dance season finale, it seems like you were itching to get back onstage. The dancing you were doing with Michael Dameski, and Charity and Andres …
Are you coming out of a period of low to medium activity that made you anxious to get onstage?
Well, yeah. Being a judge is so much fun and it’s so enjoyable, and I’m so fortunate to be in that position, but I also think it’s important to get in the arena. If I’m going to critique and have an opinion, I think it’s really important to also be able to put yourself in the area and be able to dance. Also, I just enjoy it so much. I love it. It’s a great time. It’s what I do, so it’s really fun to be out on the road and be doing what I’m doing night after night. It’s a privilege.
Your World of Dance role probably firmed up your relationship with (series executive producers) Nappytabs, who had a hand in your show. Nappytabs have practically created the new standard for what’s expected in Las Vegas entertainment due to their work with everyone from Jabbawockeez to Jennifer Lopez. What was the dynamic like in developing the production?
I’ve known Tabitha and Napoleon (D’umo) for over 10 years now and we’ve become really good friends. They’ve done all of our tours. I’ve known them really since before they broke out and came into such crazy demand.
The reason they’re in such crazy demand is not because they’re so fantastic at what they do, so efficient, but also because they are the kindest people and the easiest to work with. When everybody else is losing their head and being stressed out, freaking out, they are very calm and present. In this industry, that’s very valuable to have. I feel fortunate that I can call them family. It’s great to be able to call upon them and work with them, and to collaborate and just have a beautiful relationship with them. They’re amazing.
To go from (early mentors) Corky and Shirley Ballas to Nappytabs is a pretty fortuitous trek.
I definitely feel very fortunate to be surrounded by such wonderful people. Who you surround yourself with is who you become … on a personal level, not just on a creative level. I think it’s very important to have a good peer group, and I was very fortunate to have that.
I read parts of your 2014 memoir Taking the Lead: Lessons from a Life in Motion, and my takeaway was your mom taught you to innovate and dad taught you not to be afraid to act “like a dork.” That’s a quote.
Oh, is it? (laughs)
Your dad taught you to not be afraid to let go of your inhibitions, is another way of saying that. Did your parents create that balance that allowed you to …
Yeah, my mother, I’m so thankful for her because she was told many times to put me on medication because I had a lot of energy. I was just going all over the place, and my mother didn’t believe in any of that. Instead of muting my energy, she focused my energy into dance and drum lessons, and art lessons and swimming lessons, and karate lessons. I was always doing something and learning, growing in some way. So she really instilled in me that desire to learn and grow, and I just thank her so much for that. Moving to England at such a young age and being surrounded by such great talents and competitors, dancers and coaches, I was always in a position to grow and get better and better. Yeah, I was very fortunate.
It seems like the ballroom dancing competition scene set you up to be able to handle the rigors of a tour like this: how to travel, how to channel energy into things that are positive and beneficial.
In England I was the lead in a production of Footloose, and I traveled all across the country doing eight shows a week. Here’s what’s crazy: I got paid very little, considering the amount of work I was doing. We had to find our own accommodation, pay for our own accommodation, find our own traveling, pay for our own traveling, pay for all our own food. … After I did 150 shows, traveling non-stop just busting my tail, when I got home I was in a deficit. I didn’t earn any money because I had to pay for everything. I’m very used to working extraordinarily hard for really nothing, so I think my foundation of gratitude for being able to do what I love and be able to make a living … I never, ever take that for granted. Ever.
Beyond Derek Hough: Live! what do you see in the near and far future?
My goal after this is to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. I’m a big adventurer so I love the outdoors. Careerwise there are a few things in the works I will be pursuing.
Will you be back on World of Dance?
Possibly. There are a few things up in the air, so we’ll see what happens. (laughs)