When Derek Hough watches dance, he wants to feel something. He’s willing to gawk at gravity-defying tricks, but he also searches for the sensitivity of a moment that can speak volumes.
“It’s that feeling: how does it make me feel, and did it move me?” he said.
The Emmy-winning dancer and choreographer, who rose to fame on “Dancing with the Stars,” will don yet another hat this summer when he sits alongside Jennifer Lopez and NE-YO as a judge on NBC’s new dance show, “World of Dance.” Based on an international competition of the same name, the 10-part series will star performers of all backgrounds and ages when both groups and soloists take the stage. Jenna Dewan Tatum hosts as competitors vie for a $1 million prize.
Hough fans may be disappointed to learn that his distinctive, finessed lines and bubbling charisma will be hidden behind a judge’s table. He has made a reputation for himself as one of the most accomplished ballroom dancers in the country, both on- and off-screen, and is currently filling auditoriums on-tour with his sister, Julianne Hough. But while there is a time to steal the spotlight, dancers also have a responsibility to give back to their community and advise the talent of the future.
As a child, Hough had mentors of his own who fostered his love of dance. Rick Robinson taught a young Hough hip-hop and instilled a passion in him that had yet to take root. “I didn’t want to be a dancer. I didn’t want to go to dance class. I was young,” Hough admitted.
In his New York Times bestseller, Taking the Lead, Hough writes as a kid, his hyperactivity often steered him toward trouble. To avoid emergency room visits, his mother would fill his schedule with classes so he wouldn't injure himself while at play. Though Hough may have fought against karate lessons, eventually, dance stole his heart thanks to Robinson.
“He just made it really cool and took me under his wing,” Hough said.
When he moved to London as a preteen, his coaches Corky and Shirley Ballas drove him to competitions around Europe every weekend and rehearsed in the evenings to grow him into the performer he is today. Like contestants on “World of Dance” who may idolize Hough, he had his own inspiration during his training years: Ukrainian latin dancer Slavik Kryklyvyy. At a competition in Holland, he watched Kryklyvyy and realized that he wanted to follow in his footsteps.
“I was mesmerized by the way he moved his body, and the control with it,” Hough said.
He has since won acclaim at ballroom competitions around the world and become somewhat of an icon, with starring roles in films and television series, as well as last winter’s “Hairspray Live.”
Through his role on “World of Dance,” Hough raved he has seen extraordinary performances from up-and-comers. He said the show demands a certain caliber, and his first reaction to a piece is usually positive. But as he goes through a focused rubric that grades routine, execution, presentation, and crowd appeal, he is able to dissect the strengths and weaknesses of each work -- even when confronting drastically different dance forms, like ballet and hip-hop.
“The truth is you can’t really compare the dancing itself, but you can certainly compare the feeling it gives you,” Hough said.
As a judge, he empathizes with the competitors because he has often stood in their shoes. But he, JLo, and Ne-Yo have a responsibility to offer constructive criticism, and to challenge each performer to go beyond their comfort zones.
“We don’t want to be harmful, but we also want to push them,” he said.
“World of Dance” premieres May 30 at 10 p.m. EST on NBC.