This ‘athletic artist’ shares his approach to staying healthy in mind, body and spirit
Derek Hough is known by many for his popular feature roles on the hit TV shows World of Dance and Dancing With the Stars. He credits his lifelong sense of curiosity and hunger to learn new things with leading him to his career success and to an active, healthy and fulfilling life.
Discovering a passion
From a young age, Hough was always learning. Born in Sandy, Utah, in the Salt Lake City area, he is one of five kids — including his sister, Julianne, who trained in dance with him and with whom he still collaborates and tours. He remembers that his family was always actively creating. “We were always in lessons growing up, either karate classes, or swimming lessons, or art class, or dance classes of course, and drum lessons as well.” shares Hough. “So I was always learning, and for me it instilled a sense of curiosity and hunger to learn, and that has carried over.”
“My friends would have new toys and gadgets of all kinds and I wanted them,” says Hough. “My mom would say, ’we’ll make it’ and we would use plywood and draw things out and then saw it out — really making stuff. It brought out my creative side.”
That creative passion led to his first introduction to the arts — playing drums in a Beach Boys tribute band when he was only 8 years old. The band played around the community and even at the Utah County Fair. “Being a drummer I learned rhythm, and that rhythm became my foundation,” he says.
That foundation helped Hough pick up dance relatively quickly, and it didn’t take long for him to discover he loved it. This realization brought back early memories of dancing with his family. His grandparents were all dancers, and his parents met while on a ballroom dancing team in college, so it was the continuation of a family tradition. “People ask me ‘When did you start dancing?’ and it turns out I’d been dancing as long as I could remember. I look at home videos where I was 2 years old and we were having dance parties in our living room as a family.”
A sense of community
Ironically, though, Hough admits that he was “kind of dragged” into formally studying dance. “I didn’t really want to go at first. But I had this coach, he was a really cool guy, and then it opened up a community for me, a sense of belonging.” He (and, later, Julianne) ended up moving to London at age 12 to study with professional coaches, and there he threw himself into a rigorous program of practicing and touring, striving to improve his skills and win competitions. “We were traveling around, going to New York, going to Hawaii — and being a kid from Utah I was like, ‘Wow, this is incredible!’ That was definitely a revelation, that I really loved it. So I turned something I didn’t want to do into realizing and discovering a passion.”
One thing Hough especially loves is how the perception of dance has changed because of the popularity of television shows like Dancing With the Stars and World of Dance, and how they have opened up dance for more people. “They have shown the athleticism and hard work, and have educated people, especially guys, about it. You know, 10 years ago I could have said, ‘Hey, did you see that Paso Doble?’ and people would have been like ‘What? What is that?’ But now they’re like, wow, I loved that gaucho, or that flamenco step. It has been fantastic for dance.”
He also sees more people understanding just how physically demanding dance can be. A term Hough often uses to explain his craft is that dancers are “artistic athletes.” He says, “When I’m dancing, I don’t just dance, I’m actually training as well, on top of dancing. To do certain moves, to be quick with those twitch muscles, and the strength, that stability, that core, that rhythm, the isolations — I mean there’s so much that goes into it, from the main muscle groups to the ones you’ve never heard of. It’s a full-body thing.”
Not only that, but Hough says viewers appreciate the storytelling aspect and emotion within dance as well. “Some of my fondest memories of creating routines on Dancing With the Stars are of people reaching out and going, you know, that really inspired me to call my mom, or I’ve experienced this, this sense of heartbreak, and it was really cathartic to watch that. I didn’t feel like I was alone; I felt like I experienced it with you,” he says. “So it’s a really beautiful thing, and for me it has been an absolute pleasure; it’s been a joy to see the evolution of the popularity and also the standing and appreciation of dance over the past decade.”
The ‘prize’ of service
“A big shift in me personally is that for many years I was a competitor. It was always about being the best, about winning — that was my fuel. And then one time I was in my apartment, looking at all these trophies, and I was like, wow, that’s really cool — then I thought, but why do I still feel not fulfilled?” It turns out that working with others, coaching and teaching, was the new fuel Hough needed. “It was a big transition for me, and it really came down to service. For me, it’s the fulfillment aspect of it — the sharing of ideas, or helping and bringing somebody up, bringing their confidence up, or seeing that light go on in their eyes where they go, ‘Wow, I can do that!’” Hough realized that, rather than winning more trophies or being the best, those were now the moments that actually filled him up.
“That focus, that transition for me has really opened up a lot of good things in my life, and it’s much more fulfilling. On World of Dance, these dancers, these athletes, I really want to try to motivate and inspire them and not just judge them but to help them on their journey.”
Gratitude is also a key, says Hough. “We hear it a lot, but it’s true — you can’t really be in a fearful or angry state if you’re in gratitude; they can’t live simultaneously. So for me, the second I start having expectations, expecting how the world should act, or expecting how my family or friends should be, or whatever it might be, to just change the expectations for appreciation. If I suddenly just start appreciating, even if something is terrible, well, how can I appreciate this? In that moment, it changes the whole game.
“Just the other day we were filming and I was sitting there like, this is such a great job, this is so awesome, this is so much fun watching these incredible dancers. I have been in that position many times since I was 12 years old, being judged on the dance floor, and you’re working so hard, and so my appreciation and my compassion for them out on that floor is overflowing. And to watch them, their skills, and their heart, and their reaction to will they make it through — I just love that.”
“Just start moving! Don’t be hard on yourself or judge yourself. Movement is in our DNA, all of us.”
Derek’s tips for staying fit
Hough credits his family, especially his mom, with grounding him in good health and nutrition. “I realized as I got older how ahead of the game she was when it came to healthy habits, and natural and organic foods and things like that. She taught us from a young age about certain foods to eat and what to stay away from,” he says.
- He listens to his body and pays attention to what makes him react, whether it’s what gives him energy or what makes him feel sluggish or inflamed.
- Fresh food helps him stay focused and sharp, not only physically but also mentally. “It’s so important, especially when you have to try to create something and choreograph. There’s nothing worse than trying to create something when your brain is not fully activated.”
- One trick he uses is to leverage the power of association. For example, he regularly drinks what he calls “swamp water,” which is a super-greens formula he mixes with water. “I associated pleasure to it, and actually conditioned myself to love it. It was almost like I was drinking energy, I was drinking light, I was drinking focus…that’s the association I put with it, and it gave me so much energy and so much clarity, and my skin cleared up.”
- Greens in general are Hough’s mainstay. “Any meal I have, I have to have a copious amount of greens. That’s the theme throughout whatever I have. So if I’m having salmon, or a little chicken, or even a little red meat, whatever it might be, there’s always an abundance of greens available. Asparagus, broccoli — all the good stuff.”
- To keep himself positive and motivated, he seeks wisdom every day through reading or listening to an inspiring speaker or podcast. “There’s so much information, with social media and just media in general. You get this ding, this alert, this happened and before you know it, your mind is hijacked. It’s like we’re saturated with information but starving for wisdom. So it’s basically choosing and selecting the things I want to have come into my mind and absorb.”
- If he does find himself with thoughts and feelings he doesn’t like, he says, “The first thing to do is move. It’s changing my physiology, changing my body, changing the way I’m holding myself. Changing my body changes my outlook.”
- Hough says the way to progress in anything is to challenge yourself to do difficult things. “It’s like working out,” he says, “like lifting a weight. Just like you have to push against something hard to create muscles, you need resistance to create growth. We need those challenges, so welcome them — they’re a gift to help you grow.”
- Dance! Hough says that too often people get scared off by the word “dance” because they’ve set limitations on themselves about what they can’t do. “Just start moving!” he says. “Don’t be hard on yourself or judge yourself. Movement is in our DNA, all of us. If you look at a baby, even before they can walk they’re bobbing their heads, moving back and forth. When you get outside your comfort zone, you always come out inspired and feeling great. Dance is a great form of exercise and it’s also good for your soul.”
Jodi Marsh is the executive editor for Healthy Living Made Simple.