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Your passion is what will truly bring out the best version of you. For Derek Hough, that passion was dance. In this episode, Derek (whose fame as a six-time Mirror Ball Trophy winner on Dancing With The Stars and who has a new Residency Show in Las Vegas!) shares his life and climb to the top of his profession. Join your host Dan Clark as he chats with Derek about his passion for dance. Derek also gives us an inside glimpse of how the judging system in dance actually inspires us to become the best versions of ourselves!
Derek Hough On How Dance Inspires Us To Become The Best Versions Of Ourselves
In this episode, Derek Hough is a six-time Mirror Ball trophy winner on Dancing With The Stars and has a new residency show in Las Vegas. He shares his life and climbs to the top of his profession, giving us an inside glimpse of how the judging system and dance inspire us to become the very best versions of ourselves.
Welcome to the program.
Thank you for having me. That was an amazing introduction. I hope I can live up to it.
Every time I’ve been around you, even on a New Year’s Eve party, of course, you’re going to be the consummate fireworks, a master and put on stadium-type fireworks that illuminated the sky for miles. It’s amazing.
I appreciate it.
Everything you do is over the top and reminds us to think, play and live bigger. Let’s get right into some questions that I think every reader would want to know. How and when did you first identify your passion?
For me, if it’s anything worth doing, it’s worth overdoing. It’s interesting when people talk about passion because I think that sometimes we’re like, “I don’t know what my passion is.” Another word for passion is energy. What gives me energy? Being a kid growing up, I had lots of energy. My Bishop told my mom, “Your job is to keep this kid alive.” I was bouncing off the walls all over the place. Going back right at the beginning, which is somewhere, I need to thank my mother because I had such a sporadic focus. I was always, “I want to do this. I want to do that.” I’m running around.
If it’s anything worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.
Doctors, people and teachers would say, “You need to put this kid on Ritalin or something to focus him, to calm his energy down or to mute his energy.” My mom was way ahead of her time and she was very much into holistic approaches. We didn’t have sugar, sugar cereals, sodas or anything like that in the house. What she did was instead of mute my energy, she focused my energy. She put me in karate lessons, drum lessons, art lessons and swim lessons.
I was always doing something where I was learning and growing. Even though there’ll be times when I’ll be playing baseball on the side of the yard or at my friend’s house, my mom would say, “It’s time to go to karate.” I would be like, “No, I don’t want to go.” She would make me go and then after I do my karate class, I come home and I’m like, “Thanks, mom. Thanks for making me go because I loved that.” From the beginning, I appreciate my mother for not muting my energy but focusing my energy, which is what I attribute a lot of my interests in a lot of things. I’m always so fascinated and curious to learn or to grow in many different areas but my love of dance came.
I was in the parking lot. All my sisters danced and I would sit in the parking lot waiting for them to finish their classes. My mom was like, “Why don’t you go in there?” She pretty much dragged me in there. I was kicking, screaming and being like, “This is for girls. No, I don’t want to do this.” I walked into class and I saw a lot of girls in there. I was like, “This is good.”
Immediately, I wasn’t too sure about it, but the one thing I liked about it was being around many people and the music. The music hit me and affected me. I had a great teacher. His name was Rick Robinson and he made it cool for me. He was encouraging. He was a great guy who I would want to be around this guy. He was motivating and inspiring. Even at a young age, I felt that presence. I loved the dancing, camaraderie, social aspect of being around people and also that feeling of achievement where you feel like, “I learned and accomplished something.”
Dancing eventually took me around the country and took me around the world, and because of dancing, I’ve had so many opportunities that I’m so thankful for. I think that the word passion and another word I use for passion is energy. Sometimes we think about like, “What is my passion?” It’s the question that we often ask ourselves is because sometimes it’s a little unclear. I think the other word is what gives me energy? What am I motivated about? What inspires me? It could be working with animals and people. It could be art. It could be anything that can get you to feel that energy. I think that is a seed of passion.
I want to add one more thing to that because talking about passion as well. I think when people say, “Is dance your passion,” I say, “For me, dance is more of a vehicle for my passion.” I mean that my passion is working with people, being creative, moving my body, and staying active. Those are my passions and there are more of those, but what happens is that dance is a vehicle that meets a lot of those needs.
A lot of those things that I’m passionate about, but many other things also meet those as well, working for charitable causes and people, fitness being in the gym working out. That’s one of my passions. It’s not necessarily the dance itself, even though I am very passionate about it. My real passions are working with people, being creative, staying active with my body, music, and all those things. It meets those passions and that’s what dance does for me, for sure.
It’s so interesting to me because my whole family is big fans of you, but we’re fans of Dancing With The Stars. As the only six-time Mirror Ball Champion, your partners on Dancing With The Stars have included Brooke Burke, Jennie Garth, Ricki Lake, Maria Menounos, Nicole and Jennifer Grey, Kellie Pickler, Amber Riley, Amy Purdy and Bindi Irwin. That was a great season.
You’re friends with race car champions and the list goes on and on. When I’ve had a chance to interview some of these folks, they always bring you up as an inspiration in their life because you live life larger and on the edge. I suppose these aren’t your exact words, but I would suppose that you would say, “If you don’t live on the edge, you’re taking up way too much space.”
I want you to talk about the second P that makes you and everyone else that is a power player and that’s preparation. Tell me about who in your life inspired you to prepare and let’s talk a little bit about your preparation. When you see your live dance show, you are onstage almost 100% of the time, dancing at the highest level, and you never start to breathe heavily. You never look fatigued, and I don’t know what they show in your national tour. I saw you but you have never fatigued. Let’s talk about mental, emotional and physical preparation. Let’s start with who inspired you to learn to push yourself to this ultimate capacity potential as a human being that inspires every other superstar with whom you come in contact?
Preparation is the thing too. We are prepared but sometimes we don’t have the opportunities or sometimes often we have the opportunities, but we’re not prepared. It’s when preparation meets opportunity. I feel like my ballroom dancing background, my ballroom competitive world, where I would compete every week, train nonstop all week, especially on the weekends, and then compete every single Sunday. That was a time in my life where it was all about preparation and practice. There’s a great expression that we are rewarded in public for what we do in practice and what we do in private. It’s in those private moments and practices that we’re all the work is done.
Part of that preparation, my teachers and coaches, instilled that within me. A lot of it, too, was a little bit of fear, to be honest with you, because there’d be times when I wasn’t prepared and I’d be in the middle of the competition floor. I didn’t feel like my stamina was where it should have been or I felt like my technique wasn’t as good as it should have been. It’s an awful feeling when you feel exposed like that and you don’t feel prepared.
I think that experiencing those moments, you realize like, “I don’t ever want to feel that way ever again. I want to make sure that I am fully prepared. I am fully ready before I go out there and be in this incredibly vulnerable position where you are being judged. You are being picked apart.” For me, experiencing that and also vocally singing. When I did the West End, I did eight shows a week. I had to sing and dance my butt off every single night.
That’s when you were in Footloose.
That’s like the Broadway of London. There’d be times when my voice would cut out and I couldn’t even get a note out. I’ve used my voice halfway through the show, and there’s a lot of fear in that because there are thousands of people watching you. It made me go, “I want to make sure I’m prepared. I have the right tools and knowledge. I’m ready.” It’s funny as well because I did Boy Scouts as a kid and one of the mottos is, be prepared.
For me, the preparation, that’s where it all is made. For my tours, I have to be smart about the way I craft my shows because I want to make sure that I’m on stage for the majority of the time but I have to be smart about when I take breaks, get drinks of water and my little moments to breathe. A lot of times, I choreograph those moments within the piece. Being smart, it’s the way I craft together a show to where the energy continues moving forward and moving at a fast pace but not tiring out. I’m making it so I can do the show the next day in a different city. It’s all in preparation. Also, not physically and strategically, but like you said too, mentally and emotionally.
People are rewarded in public for what they practice for years in private.
Let me interrupt to ask you the specific question so you can continue on. You’ve got millions of people judging you, watching you on TV. You’ve got a live audience. You’ve graciously allowed me to come and sit in the audience behind the judges as your guests in the live shows. Let’s talk about the difference between being nervous, having anxiety and fear. How do you control that as part of your emotional and mental preparation? You brought it up. That’s why I interrupted to ask you specific questions that all of us can relate to. How do you deal with nervousness versus excitement? Tell us the difference.
Being a competitive dancer growing up, I was always so good in practice. When I would go out into the competition floors, I would be prepared to be ready but there’d be times when my nerves would get the better for me. All of a sudden, all the techniques would go out the window and all the energy would be sucked out of me because of this nervous energy. My heart would be beating fast, my palms would be sweaty and I’d be a little shaky. My knees weren’t quite all there. It’s that feeling of that nervous feeling and I had to try to figure out a way to battle that. I had to overcome that somehow.
I read somewhere, which was a huge game-changer for me, where being nervous and being excited chemically in your body are identical. There’s no difference chemically in your body between being nervous and being excited. The only difference are two things. The word itself and the language we use. When we say nervous, it puts focus on all the things that can go wrong, all the bad things. When you say, “I’m so nervous,” what you’re saying is that I’m nervous of falling over, messing up, the judges not liking you, the audience won’t like what I’m doing. I’m nervous I’m not good enough. The idea of being nervous is you’re focusing on all the bad things and all the bad things that can go wrong.
When your focus goes, your energy flows. By changing the word, faking it, psyching yourself out or even when you start to feel that feeling in your body and your palms sweating, your heartbeat is fast. I would say to myself out loud, “I’m excited.” That word has a positive association, which is I’m excited to show them what I’ve prepared for, to show this performance and to hear the audience applause. I’m excited to do this. That can work in any situation. It could be a job interview, business meeting or go out and meeting somebody for the first time and you’re nervous.
By changing the word being excited, it changes your focus to the positive things. You can reprogram yourself. It’s a simple tool that, for me, has been wildly effective. When I’m judging World of Dance, there is something that I tell the competitors backstage before they go out there. Also, more importantly, when I was on Dancing With The Stars, it was a huge thing. I had to work with these celebrities because they’re in the most vulnerable position ever. They’re not professional dancers. They’re going out in front of millions of people.
A good example is Kellie Pickler. She had paralyzing nerves before we went out there and I tried that technique with her. It was amazing to see the transformation of her confidence and focus on the positive things by saying, “I’m excited.” I’d make her say it out loud and even if I didn’t think she believed it, I’d be like, “Say it out loud, keep saying it. I’m excited.” It was amazing to see the result. She ended up winning Dancing With The Stars and she was incredible.
That brings up something that’s so interesting where the rumor on the street is the reason why you have won six Mirror Ball. It’s the reason why you’re the most popular and most extraordinary choreographer. If you remember, this is one of the lessons you taught me in our basement of my family room. You don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do. You taught me this life-changing lesson that if you found out that your partner couldn’t turn or do a forte to the left, you would have them do it to the right because that’s what they could do. You choreographed to their strengths, not to yours, which has a professional speaker.
It’s never about the speaker. It’s always about the audience and you live that lesson. It’s always about someone else. Teach us about that from a choreographer’s perspective. It deals with parenting, coaching and managing people in the business. You go where they are in a more extraordinary way than anyone I’ve ever met at any age in any industry. You know that it’s about the other person, making them look better and looking best. Illuminate that a little more about how you will figure that out and why that’s been such an amazing managerial coaching tool in your life?
For me, having Dancing With The Stars was an extraordinary and unique show to be a part of because you’re coming in contact with such an eclectic group of people from all different walks of life and all different backgrounds. I would have an actress one year, a singer, an athlete or a Paralympian. It was always somebody that was different.
I realized early on that I need to change my teaching methods according to who I’m working with. A part of that is learning what they connect and associate with. If I’m working with an actress, it’s talking about a scene and how do you get to this emotion? How do you tell this dance step is like that emotion, except for you do it like this? It would always have to be adapting. I always have to adapt and be flexible in how I communicate it.
To be honest with you, there were times when I would get extremely frustrated. What I realized during those moments was that it was always with myself because I couldn’t quite find the answer. I wasn’t explaining it correctly or I wasn’t doing it in a way that they quite understood. It was like being a detective. I had to figure it out. I was like, “This usual way I do this isn’t working with this person. It’s up to me, being the coach, leader and teacher, to find the way that’s going to help them the most.”
When I couldn’t do that, I would get extremely frustrated, but it was with myself always because I couldn’t quite find it. If I kept stayed persistent, I would eventually get there. That’s the thing too. It’s all about the decision. I think one of the most powerful things that we’ve been given is the power to decide. It’s our decision in everything that we do. There’s a great expression that’s like, “It’s not the conditions of our life, but it’s our decisions.” We can’t control the things around us. We can’t control who we’re working with, whatever it is in our environment.
We’re never truly in control but what we are always in control of our decision. That power that when we realize that we take responsibility for ourselves and the idea of taking responsibility is that we have the ability to respond in any situation because we take that full responsibility. Whether it be a working relationship, business to work, environment, society or whatever it is. If we take 100% responsibility, then we’ll always have that ability to respond in those situations.
That for me, it has been a helpful tool. I know that when things aren’t going great, going well and there is a conflict or something happening in my own little world, it’s when I’m not taking that full responsibility and it’s something I have to constantly check myself with. I make sure that my focus is in the right place and that I’m aligned.
Going back to Dancing With The Stars, it certainly was a crash course for how to coach, teach, evolve and adapt. What was so wonderful about that show too, is that I had clear goals. Even growing up competing, I had competitions every Sunday. I had a clear goal of which I was moving towards and seeing with Dancing With The Stars. It was like we were going live in front of millions of people every Monday. There was no sense of you couldn’t procrastinate. You couldn’t put things off because there’s that fear of like, “We’re not going to be ready.” I loved having that pressure and having that clear goal because I feel like you’ve always found a way. You never had an out. We had to make it happen no matter what.
As you said, it didn’t do you any good to complain. It didn’t do you any good to blame your partner. I think that’s worth reiterating that it’s about taking personal responsibility and not reacting but responding. You’re a wise man beyond your years. As we start winding down, I don’t know if you feel comfortable. It’s one of the great stories I’ve ever heard in my life about you. I think it was before World of Dance and you were dragged out on the dance floor by Jennifer Lopez. Can you please tell that story and what happened? How funny was that?
We’re going to experience failure as a part of succeeding. You need to stay hungry and move forward despite failure, falling, or whatever it might be.
Jennifer Lopez and I were with a bunch of friends. We were out celebrating. I can’t remember what it was for, but we were salsa dancing and I was like, “This is great, salsa dancing with Jennifer Lopez. I can’t complain about this and we’re having a good time.” I dipped her and when I dipped her, I must have stepped on her hair. I yanked her back up and unfortunately, half of her hair stayed on the floor, which was not great, but she didn’t skip a beat. She kept dancing, moving and then the next day she sent me a picture of her head. It was a red rock.
I felt terrible. It was one of those moments where I was like, “I’ll never see her ever again and that’s the end of a friendship.” Luckily and strangely enough, about a month later, she asked me about being a part of World of Dance and I agreed. It’s such an incredible show to be part of. I love it so much. It’s wonderful.
We’re winding down our time. You’re so gracious and I appreciate you so much. The last P of the three Ps that makes you a timeless generational power player is pursuing your passion. I’m sure my readers and your fans want to know in a very abbreviated way. How did you get invited to participate as a competitor, as a choreographer, on Dancing With The Stars? What motivates you to keep pursuing this passion to connect with people, entertain the world, and lead people in places and venues in better shape when you found them?
Another word for pursuing my passions and what I love is his hunger. Maintain that desire to grow and to continue learning. I know, for me personally, when I don’t feel like there’s progress in my life. It’s a great expression, “Progress equals happiness.” When we’re feeling like we’re progressing, it makes us feel alive, even if it’s a small progress. There’s an aliveness to that. When they asked me to be a part of that show, they said, “Are you a choreographer? Do you teach and all that?” To be completely honest with you, I didn’t.
I’m straight up said, “Absolutely.” I completely did a full-face lie. Here’s the thing, I might’ve not been completely truthful, but what I was truthful about in putting myself was I will make sure that I will be great at it. I will do the work. I will put the time in to be a great teacher, to be a great choreographer. That I knew I had a conviction within me and that hunger and desire, but the good part about that was I threw myself into it and that taught me in a sense that like, “You’ll never never be ready until you go for it and do it.” You learn as you go. I think that’s always been helpful for me.
It has always been times when I’ve talked myself out of things, over-analyzed things and that over-analysis equals paralysis where you end up not doing anything because you’re too scared to do something or too nervous. I think part of that is the idea of failing. We’re going to experience failure as a part of succeeding. Failure is something to embrace and to look forward to almost in a way because failure is a teacher. Failure is the thing that is designed to help us realize, “That didn’t work. I need to change my strategy and approach.”
That’s something that I like to instill in the World of Dance competitors who, on stage, when they don’t make it through, I tell them, “This is a chapter in your book. The rest is still unwritten and you’re ready to go back.” When I think back at my life, the most pivotal moments in my life have been the moments when I failed, didn’t win, fell down, embarrassed myself or whatever it might’ve been. Those were the pivotal moments in my life.
I mentioned that because to pursue means that you need to stay hungry and you want to move forward despite failure, falling down or whatever it might be. To stay consistent and to have that resilience because the truth is that failure can’t live in the presence of persistence. You will fail but if you keep being persistent, you’re going to succeed.
I could talk to you for hours. Maybe you could promise publicly to come back on the show at some other point, but it’s come to an end with Derek Hough. I challenge everyone on this planet to follow you, to be inspired by your genuine goodness, your character, your class and not just your talent. Can you give us a way to follow you to become part of your tribe and tell us that we can keep in touch?
As I close off my tagline with you readers, remember my friends, when you finally decide to be a power player, your power play begins in you like Derek Hough, my guest, has explained so eloquently. Until next time, pump the fire, take away and go make a power play. Thank you, Derek.
About Derek Hough
Emmy Award-winning and New York Times Best-Selling author Derek Hough, the only six-time champion in franchise history of the hit ABC show Dancing with the Stars, started dancing in his hometown of Salt Lake City, UT, at age 11.
Just one year later, he moved to London to live and train with the top dance coaches in the world and attend the prestigious Italia Conti performing arts school where he studied theatre, music and dance.
A multi-talented entertainer, two-time Emmy Award winner, and none-time nominee for Best Choreography, Hough has also appeared in film, television and stage projects as an actor. He made his feature film debut for director Duane Adler and producer Robert Cort in the feature film Make Your Move and has a recurring role on the ABC series Nashville.
His stage performances include Radio City Music Hall’s Spring Spectacular costarring alongside the Tony Award winning Laura Benanti and the critically acclaimed production of Footloose which he starred as the male lead in London’s West End.
In December of 2016, Hough starred with Jennifer Hudson, Ariana Grande, Martin Short and Harvey Fierstein in NBC’s Hairspray Live! In May of 2017, Hough joined Jennifer Lopez and Ne-Yo at the judges table for the NBC series World of Dance. World of Dance, which launched as the highest-rated summer show in over ten years, is an unparalleled dance competition that featured solo artists competing against duos and crews in all genres of dance, including hip hop, tap, ballet, break dancing, ballroom, and more competing for a million-dollar prize. Hough can also add best-selling author to his list of credits.
His memoir Taking the Lead; Lessons from a Life in Motion hit stands in August of 2014 and rapidly was named to the prestigious New York Times Best-Seller list during two non-consecutive time periods. In 2014 Hough and his sister Julianne teamed for a live stage dance concert MOVE Live on Tour performing in 50 cities around the country, in 2015 they toured again selling out scores of venues on their 47city outing.
In 2017 they again performed a sold-out tour of 48 cities around the United States with their show Move – Beyond – Live on Tour. With celebrity partners on Dancing with the Stars that have included Brooke Burke, Jennie Garth, Ricki Lake, Maria Menounos Nicole Scherzinger, Jennifer Grey, Kellie Pickler, Amber Riley, Amy Purdy and Bindi Irwin, Hough is best known for his innovation and daring choreography on the show.