April 5, 2019
On April 17, the Benedum Center is flooded with excited, chattering people, mostly women. It is clearly a Girls’ Night Out, everyone pushing to the merchandise stand to buy t-shirts, posters, and programs. The air in the theatre is buzzed with a different flavor than usually comes before musicals. The theatre has become a concert venue tonight. As they settle into their seats, the lights dim, and a voice comes on over the speaker announcing the start of Derek Hough: Live! At the mention of his name, the entire theatre goes wild, cheering and screaming. When the voiceover cheekily asks if Derek ever wears a shirt, the cheering gets even louder.
Hough, a world-renowned dancer, is perhaps best known for his work on ABC’s Dancing With The Stars, which he appeared on from 2007-2016. He won the coveted Mirror Ball Trophy a whopping six times and partnered with celebrities including Nicole Scherzinger, Jennie Garth, Brooke Burke, and Bindi Irwin. On DWTS, Hough had a week to teach his non-dancing celebrity partners a dance number to then be judged by both judges and at-home viewers. For his work on the show, he was nominated eight times for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Choreography and won twice.
With Derek Hough: Live!, however, Hough didn’t have to teach his dancers how to dance, instead bringing an all-star cast of dancers. “People might recognize the dancers I’ve cast. You know, Charity Anderson is the first perfect score on So You Think You Can Dance, Jay Jay [Dixonbey] was on So You Think You Can Dance. They’re amazing dancers. Daniella [Karagach] is the current Latin Ballroom dancing champion. I always joke around saying that dancing with her is like dancing with a Ferrari. It’s a different level of quality. It’s really exciting.”
Hough grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah. Despite his dedication and clear talent for dance, he was bullied and teased for being a boy who danced because it wasn’t considered cool by his classmates. Instead of quitting, though, Hough found a safe haven in the dance studio with encouraging teachers. At 12 years old, Hough moved to London, with his sister Julianne to pursue intense dance training under Shirley and Corky Ballas, world-famous dancers and instructors. He remembers his rigorous daily schedule while he studied at the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts perfectly and rattles it off as if he were still enrolled. “I woke up at six a.m., got two trains to school, which took me about an hour every day. We’d train all day at school every day in ballet, jazz, tap, and singing, in addition to academic schooling as well. Then we took the train back, ate food, then rush off and drive to the studio, and I’d practice my Latin dancing for competing on the weekends. I’d finish at about 11 at night with that and get back home and do it all again. Saturdays I’d have private Latin or Ballroom lessons all day, and some weekends we’d drive to Liverpool or Birmingham, across England for a Latin competitions, and sometimes across the world to Japan or Australia or wherever it might be.”
“It was hard,” he acknowledges, “because I was bullied and picked on and because it was a grueling schedule trying to fit it all in, but it was fulfilling and worth it.”
During the show, Hough’s extensive training and clear passion for his work is obvious. He is seemingly all over the stage at once, dancing up across the multiple levels on the stage while changing outfits, beating on large drums, and romancing the female dancers. Almost everything glitters, from the stage to the costumes to Hough’s electric guitar. The audience is untamed, yelling and screaming every time he loses his shirt and growing quiet during the few slow numbers. The show is more like a concert with stunning lighting and a live band that plays during the show, even getting Hough singing.
“We’ve got every genre of music you can get. We’ve got Motown to Flamenco and Spanish music to Salsa music to contemporary and even musical theatre like with ‘Singin’ In the Rain’ or ‘Moses Supposes.’ There’s Big Band music too, Michael Bublé. A lot of the songs I’ll be singing, and the dancing is very theatrical. One of the songs I’m singing is a Michael Bublé song, and I actually called him and asked him if it would be possible to get the original brass section for the track so that my band can play to it. He was so gracious and sent me everything I needed, and it sounds so incredible.”
Hough has worked with Bublé before, directing and starring in the music video to his 2016 hit song, “I Believe In You.” The music video follows a couple’s life from their youth all the way through old age. The story follows the ups and downs of life, infusing dancing with tables, stairs, and packing material. It’s not the only directing credit under Hough’s belt, but he hopes to do more of it in the future, namely a full-length feature.
Directing is only one of the things on his bucket list, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro being the next thing after finishing his tour. Tour life, he says, is hard and it helps to have daily routines to combat injuries. He laughs when he talks about the younger dancers in the show who have never toured before. “I’m really excited because they’re so energetic and hungry which makes for great performers and great dancers. But we’ll be trying some new things in rehearsal and they’ll say, ‘What if I do this backflip, triple backflip thing here?’ and I’m like, ‘Hold on, I love that, but remember you’re doing that sixty times, every single night, so maybe we’ll do a variation on that.’ It’s being smart while still having a wow factor and being able to do it long-term.”
Hough, who toured most recently with his sister Julianne, has tour life down to a science. He drinks a lot of water and then starts with stretching and a vocal warm up. After each show he makes a beeline to his dressing room and jumps into an ice bath for 8-10 minutes until he’s literally numb. It’s a great way to prevent injury, he says, and allow him to perform the next day.
This is his first solo tour and Hough’s signature style shines through all of the numbers. Though he’s known for his inventive choreography, Hough is an accomplished musician and knows the value of music, which he says is, obviously, important to choreography. With each song he uses on the tour, he’s arranged them in a way that the rendition is completely unique to his show. Perhaps the biggest difference is that this is the first tour that he’s done that has live music, which he says makes all the difference. “It takes it to a different level; I don’t mean that lightly,” he says.
He does his own take on modern numbers from films such as The Greatest Showman and A Star is Born, but he also dips back to the 1950s with tributes to two of Hollywood’s greatest dancers to have ever lived, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Dressed in a three-piece suit, Hough performs one of Kelly’s most famous numbers, ‘Moses Supposes,’ from the pinnacle of movie musicals, Singin’ in the Rain. With dancer Chase Bowden, Hough tap dances across the stage, stopping in the middle of the number to sit and be fanned by some of his back up dancers, chatting with Bowden before they return to the dance, picking up the pace. Hough keeps some of Kelly’s original choreography alongside his own footwork. The number, Hough says, is incredibly challenging but rewarding. Patricia Ward Kelly, Kelly’s widow, came to LA and saw Hough run through the number in rehearsal and gave it her approval, telling him that “Gene would’ve applauded.”
Hough always knows how to put on a show, and we hope that he’s back in Pittsburgh soon!
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