Thursday, February 04, 2010

Profile On Derek Hough


Derek Hough, Not Too Hot To Fox Trot
By Amanda Abrams
January 2010
Working on “Dancing with the Stars” isn’t for someone with a single-track mind. The professional dancers who guide their celebrity partners to show their stuff on the popular ABC show have to wear a number of hats: instructor, performer, choreographer, sometimes even costumer and babysitter.

Which is why the job has been such a great fit for Derek Hough. The show’s audience knows him as a professional dancer, but his real love is simply creating and performing, regardless of genre. The five seasons Hough has spent leading famous women across the floor on “Dancing with the Stars” have allowed him to expand his talents and show off his versatile creativity. So whether or not he and his partners win or lose a given competition, Hough says he’s gaining skills that will serve him in the next phase of his life—whatever that may be.

Dancing, acting, and making music onstage come naturally to Hough: he was born into a family of performers. “When I watch home videos, we’re all camera hogs, singing and dancing, jumping off couches,” says Hough, now 24. “My mom is incredibly creative, and my sisters too—they’re all natural performers.” His parents met while dancing at Brigham Young University in Utah, where Hough was born and spent his early childhood, and his sisters grew up taking dance lessons.

That’s where Hough got his start. He’d been accompanying his mother as she chauffeured one of his four older sisters to dance class in Salt Lake City, and she encouraged him to join the class, too. “It was a hip hop class with Rick Robinson, a really cool guy,” remembers Hough. “There were some girls in there and I thought, ‘This is kind of cool.’ That was my reason for going at first.”

But he wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about the classes until he started learning ballroom dance under Robinson. Eventually, Hough joined Robinson’s dance company, and by age 9 or 10 he and the group were traveling to ballroom dance competitions in New York, Los Angeles and Hawaii. “I thought, ‘This is awesome—I get to travel and be around fun people.’ My love kind of grew from that,” he says.

When he was 12, Hough’s parents got divorced. In order to spare him and his sister Julianne (who would later become a two-time “DWTS” champ) from the ensuing chaos, they sent the two to live with Corky and Shirley Ballas, world champion ballroom dancers who lived in London. The idea was that he and Julianne would stay for a few months until things quieted down back in the U.S., then return. Instead, it was 10 years before Hough returned to the States for good.

It may have shaken up his personal life, but the move was a huge step forward for his dance career. The Ballas’ had made their reputation in the Latin American style of ballroom dance, and Shirley Ballas was “the most sought after Latin American dance teacher in the world,” says Hough.
The family had a son, Mark, who was Hough’s age. Together, the two of them and Julianne began to seriously pursue performing arts careers. With a scholarship to London’s Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, Hough joined the other two in formal courses in singing, dancing and acting. “We trained in all aspects of dance—ballet, jazz, tap, pretty much all you can think of,” recalls Hough. “To be honest, I was actually bad at school; I was always missing classes and never went to ballet.”

Nonetheless, it was rigorous training, and not just at school. “A typical week was going to school, Monday through Friday, practicing pretty much every night. On Saturdays, we’d have Latin American lessons all day. Then on Sundays we’d have competitions. It was non-stop; we were pretty much burning the candle at both ends,” explains Hough.

While he was taking lessons with outside teachers, the Ballas’ were still his primary instructors, particularly Shirley Ballas. According to Hough, she was—and still is—a phenomenal teacher. “Shirley Ballas is the kind of teacher who can do 14 lessons in a day, seven days a week, and in every single one of those she’ll give 110 percent for you. Her work ethic is so on point,” he says. “It’s hard to find coaches who work as hard as you, but you’ll take a lesson with her and she’ll be sweating as much as you.”

At that time, Hough, his sister, and Mark Ballas were already dancing competitively, traveling to Hong Kong, Japan, France and Italy to perform. Though his was not the typical carefree adolescence, Hough says he didn’t mind, explaining that he was an unusually motivated teenager. “I had a maturity about me when I was younger,” says Hough. “Even at a young age, I knew I wanted to improve and hone my skills. I felt ‘I can play later.’”
Sure, he says, “There’d be times in London when it was dark and rainy and depressing, and I thought, ‘Why am I not back in America with the sunshine?’” But in a way, London allowed him to concentrate without distractions. “I just put my head down and did it,” admits Hough. “It was a great place for me to focus.”

Eventually, he reached a point where he tired of competing. “I felt like I had more to offer than just Latin American dance,” he says. His next stop? The West End, London’s equivalent of Broadway. In 2006, Hough won the lead role in “Footloose,” the musical version of the 1984 American movie.
It was a challenge, Hough says, “The most incredible learning curve I’ve ever experienced. As the lead role, the show relies solely on you.” That included singing three solos, two duets, crying in the final scene, and dancing constantly. “Every show was a marathon,” says Hough, “and I had to do eight shows a week.”

He was 20 at the time, and stayed with the show for a year. “I’d trained for years in musical theater, but this was my first [real] thing,” he says. “It went really well, got rave reviews.”

And then it was on to something new. “That’s kind of how I am,” he says. “I say, ‘I’ve done that, and now I want to go onto the next thing.’”

The next thing arose in 2007, when the producers of “Dancing with the Stars” asked Hough, together with his best friend Mark Ballas, to join the show. A popular television series that recently completed its ninth season, the show pairs celebrities from a variety of media with professional ballroom dancers, then pits the couples against each other in a number of different dance styles.

Though tempted, Hough and Ballas both hesitated before agreeing to take the jobs. “We thought it might be cool, but I wasn’t sure I wanted America to see me as just a dancer,” says Hough. He viewed himself as far more than just a professional ballroom dancer; besides hoping to continue cultivating his acting chops, he and Ballas were in a band together, with Hough on guitar and vocals. But the two decided working on the show was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

How has it worked out? “It’s awesome,” says Hough. “The thing I love most about it is that you get to create, day in and day out.” While not every dancer employed by the show takes full creative liberty, Hough certainly does. “I’m very hands on in everything I do,” he says.

That means he’s choreographed every single dance he does onstage, taking his partners’ individual needs into account in each piece. “Each person is different, and you have to play to their strengths and hide their weaknesses,” he explains. He also designs his partners’ outfits for each performance. “It’s not that I’m into fashion,” he says, “but I know what works, what hides or amplifies certain movements and makes things look better.”

But the real efforts Hough is getting paid for aren’t necessarily creative. It’s grunt work, the ins and outs of teaching someone to dance for five or six hours a day, seven days a week, for 15 weeks without a break. “All of my dance partners have had zero background in dancing, so it’s definitely a struggle,” describes Hough. “We start at square one: they get in those heels and it’s like, ‘Let’s teach you how to walk today.’”

Figuring out how to explain dance to non-dancers is a skill in itself, he says. He’s learned over time to use examples that his partners can relate to, and to go slow in order to avoid blisters, burnout and injuries. The partnership is like a marriage—bickering and all. But the reward is worth it. “To really see the improvement from week one—it’s mind-blowing,” he says. “It just shows you that if you work five hours a day with a coach, you can become good pretty quickly.”

In the show’s seventh season, Hough won the contest dancing with Brooke Burke. He credits the win to her a natural capacity for dancing. “I knew the day I met her—I thought, ‘I think I’ve got a winner here,’” he recalls. He explains further: “She had amazing feet, amazing legs, and was very flexible. Other people can be good dancers, but you can teach them all you want and it’s still not going to look right.”

The show forces Hough to be totally at ease with all styles of ballroom dance. While there are a few he hasn’t been formally trained in, he says he can learn just about anything. But he refuses to give a favorite style. “Each dance has an element that I love, a different characteristic of my personality,” he describes. “Samba is sexy, like ‘let’s get down and dirty;’ Rumba is the sensitive, romantic side of me. Paso doble is about building tension, that masculine side. And of course jive is the goofy, energetic side.”
Not all dancers appreciate the skill involved in partner dancing, Hough points out. “It’s amazing how many jazz or ballet dancers try to do Latin or ballroom and they can’t,” he says. “It uses completely different skills and technique—small things and subtleties that take a long time to acquire.” The connection between two partners is particularly crucial and difficult to sustain. “You spend months, if not years, working on the perfect connection, and you really become in tune with each others’ bodies,” he says. “If I missed two days of rehearsal, it would mess me up completely. There’s so much involved.”

One of Hough’s favorite partners is his sister Julianne. A piece the two choreographed to the song “Great Balls of Fire” and performed on “DWTS” last year was nominated for an Emmy award. Despite the complicated lifts and throws, Hough says the two put the routine together in about 20 minutes the night before performing it. “When I dance with Julianne, we don’t even speak to each other—we don’t have to,” he explains. “We just know what we’re going to do. It’s really great.”

Experiences like that—being challenged to create interesting new dances and perform them on the fly—keep Hough engaged in his work on the show. Will he be back for the 10th season? “I’ll definitely be part of it one way or the other, no matter what,” he says. “I already have some cool ideas for next season, in terms of choreography.” But at this point, the future is uncertain: the show’s dancers have to wait to be asked back each season.
He’s not just twiddling his thumbs and waiting around; Hough already has some other plans under his belt. This fall, he flew to London to choreograph for Cheryl Cole, a popular British singer, and he’ll be heading that way again later this winter to create dances for her music video. The gig will allow him to take advantage of some of his under-used dance skills, and he plans to incorporate hip hop with Argentine tango and paso doble in the video. Meanwhile, he’ll continue playing music with Mark Ballas and keep his creative options open. “People ask me, ‘What’s your first passion?’ For me, there’s no order to what I love; it all falls under the same roof,” explains Hough. “I’m not just a dancer or singer or actor, so I tell them ‘performer.’ I just like to entertain people.”

No comments: