I've always wondered what it would be like to spend an entire day with someone like Derek Hough, the actor, choreographer and singer who became famous for his time as a professional dancer on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars. I’ve interviewed him countless times on red carpets or inside industry events, but I never expected a day in the park with him to be so intimate or inspiring.
I recently joined the performer on a visit to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in Porter, Indiana, along the southern shore of Lake Michigan. Hough was there in celebration of the National Park Foundation's "Find Your Park" initiative, a campaign to promote the lesser known parks across the country. We spent the day exploring the park, hiking sand dunes, sharing lots of laughs while kayaking and listening as the park rangers filled us in on some of the fascinating stories about the national lakeshore. Needless to say, I was thrilled to discover a lot about Hough's character.
At any given moment during our outdoor adventure, Hough would stop what he was doing to make sure everyone in our group was doing OK, and he constantly tried to make others feel comfortable by lightening the mood. When one of the park rangers had us stop and smell a piece of a Sassafras branch, for instance, Hough joked he would "definitely wear" the citrusy scent as cologne. (In his defense it did smell amazing, but if I'm being completely honest, I can't say I had the same initial reaction.)
But jokes aside, being in the park brought back a lot of fond memories for Hough, who grew up in Sandy, Utah, with an adventurous family -- his mother and father, Marianne and Bruce, and four sisters, Sharee, Marabeth, Katherine and Julianne, who is also famous for her time as a professional dancer-turned-judge on the same reality dance competition show. Hough says he was one of those kids who was always outside. He was a Boy Scout and his dad was a scoutmaster, so they were always hiking, biking and going on family road trips.
"Being outside, being in nature, it just humbles me," Hough says. "If you feel like life's getting you down, something about nature just centers you, it grounds you."
He's right. From the peaceful sounds of the wetland birds chirping from the Great Marsh to the stunning sight of turquoise water at the top of Mount Baldy, being in such an alluring setting lets Hough open up more -- at least more than any time we’ve talked in front of flashing cameras.
We start talking about age -- he’s 32 -- and the conversations dancers often have regarding when is the "right time" to retire. For many, that's after high school. Others, college. But for people like Hough, who have turned the hobby into their profession, the thought of retirement is an admittedly scary idea, but one he "absolutely" thinks about. "That sort of fear is what drives me," he says. "I use that fear to keep myself sharp and to keep myself in shape."
By no means is Hough ready to take his final bow as a performer, however. He's still in flawless shape and fully capable of dancing just as well as he did in his teen years, but like in any professional athletic endeavor, one serious injury -- like the one to Hough's ankle that sidelined him from competing on DWTS in 2015 -- can easily end your career. That's why in their 30s and 40s, many pro dancers start moving from center stage to a role behind the scenes that's less tumultuous on the body.
"I want to keep pushing myself. I want to keep learning. I want to keep growing," says Hough, who began his professional training at the age of 12 at the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts in London, England, with Mark Ballas' parents, Corky and Shirley. He's spent nearly half his life dancing professionally, being linked to DWTS since 2007. In recent years, he's expanded beyond dancing by acting on shows like Jane the Virgin and Nashville and playing Corny Collins in NBC's live broadcast of Hairspray. He was even a brief HGTV star, flipping a house with Mark Ballas on Mark & Derek's Excellent Flip. "I feel like if I'm learning, getting stronger, doing things I haven't done in the past, learning different skills -- like learning how to tap, for instance, or body percussion -- whatever it might be, I want to do it."
While joking that he was "a little sore" from our outdoor excursion, Hough says that the secret to an enduring career as a dancer is as simple as taking care of yourself. "As a dancer, [age] is something you have to be aware of. I think that can be a misconception, too, though, honestly," he says. "In the sense that people go, 'Oh, I'm getting older, I'm just naturally going to get more tired, I'm going to have less energy during the day, I'm going to be sore more often.' And it's like, 'Yeah, if you don't do anything to take care of yourself.'"
In fact, Hough revealed that he hopes to like to be like those "90-year-old women" who compete in Ironman competitions someday, similar to what Sister Madonna Buder does now. "I don't ever want to surrender to that and be like, 'Oh, I think I'm done now,'" he explains. "There's still plenty of dancing to come, for sure. That's part of who I am. It will never go away."
We both agreed that staying active and eating healthy is a necessity in the dance industry, and, "if we're not growing, we're dying." That's when Derek reveals he's trying to take his own advice by "adventuring out and trying new things," including the projects he's posted to social media, which he now luckily has the resources and time for.
Fans of Hough are likely familiar with his artsy videos, like a new piece called "Hold On," which he teased on Instagram Stories with a photo of his face partially covered in blood a day before our trip. It features an original song he wrote five years ago, and the story he's hoping to tell is one that's close to his heart: that of mental illness and suicide prevention.
"It's an important subject. It has been for a long time, but even more so now. I was inspired by the song and wanted to make something that was meaningful," Derek says, revealing he plans to release a full video in November. "With these passion projects, it's about serving. Being in the entertainment world and what we do, I couldn't do it without an audience. Whether it be inspiring others to get outdoors with the National Park Service or bringing attention to important subjects, I honestly just want to be a servant and do what I can to help -- to tell stories."
These videos, along with the official video for Michael Bublé's "I Believe in You," have given Hough an opportunity to direct -- yet, another expansion of his career behind the camera and an experience he simply describes as "vulnerable."
"Some of these things are pretty heavy subjects, and pretty emotional," Hough says of upcoming projects. "Certainly, I wanted them to be as real as possible and as raw as I can to sort of make an impact in some way. I'm pleased and I'm happy that people are still interested in and want to see that."
With his passion projects in full swing and a second season as a judge on NBC’s World of Dance coming up, there’s no slowing down for Hough, who after our park adventure was immediately jumping on a plane to Toronto, Canada, to take part in a wheelchair rugby exhibition match at the Invictus Games following our time together at Dunes National Lakeshore.
With a seemingly endless schedule of appearances and obligations, it's any wonder how he manages to maintain his relationship with girlfriend Hayley Erbert (though he offers, "lots of Facetime").
Hough and Erbert have been dating since 2015, and have practically been inseparable ever since, most recently stepping out -- and packing on the PDA! -- at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards in September.
Considering that ongoing commitment to each other and that his younger sister, Julianne, recently tied the knot with her longtime boyfriend, Brooks Laich, in July, Hough reveals he doesn’t feel any pressure to get engaged. "Not at all, actually. [I grew] up in Utah, where it's very common for somebody to get married at 22 or 23. I'm well past that, so I've gone beyond what I actually grew up knowing," he says.
"If anything, it's actually the opposite," he continues. "It's made me go, 'You know what? I've seen Julianne's love with Brooks' -- them together, seeing what they have -- and it makes me want to make sure. I want to marry once. I want to be with that person that I love dearly. I want to get to know that person. I feel like if anything, it's something that I don't feel like should be rushed into doing at all."
For now, Hough’s focused on what’s in front of him and taking life one step at a time -- all while inspiring the rest of us to do the same.