Derek Hough: The Dance of Being a Judge on ‘World of Dance’

Ne-Yo, Jennifer Lopez, Jenna Dewan Tatum and Derek Hough in World of Dance
Trae Patton/NBC
Ne-Yo, Jennifer Lopez, Jenna Dewan Tatum and Derek Hough in World of Dance

With 20 years of dancing under his belt—as well as six Dancing With the Stars victories and two Emmy Awards for Outstanding Choreography—Derek Hough is taking on a new challenge: He’s a judge, alongside Jennifer Lopez and Ne-Yo, on NBC’s new reality series World of Dance. In the show, three divisions of dancers—Juniors (competitors under 18), Uppers (acts 18 and older with one to four performers) and Teams (groups with five or more, all 18 and older)—compete among themselves until the final round, when one winner from each division faces off for the grand prize of $1 million. Hough shares the highs and lows of being on the other side of the competition.

I’ve been approached to do other shows that are dance-related, but I knew that if I was ever going to do something other than Dancing With the Stars, it had to be something really meaningful. The whole combination of elements of World of Dance excited me. I’m a fan of dance; I look at dancers as artistic athletes. And I love the idea of having a competition for dancers from all over the world. At age 12, I moved to England and I competed in Japan, France, Germany, Australia, Hong Kong. The idea of bringing all this talent together excited me.

The dancing on the show is just fantastic, eclectic. We have so many different styles. I think America has been educated in the past 10 years, and I’ve been fortunate enough that I was there seeing this movement become what it is. When I first heard there were going to be groups and soloists, I thought, “How is a soloist going to compete against a group? A group is going to have visuals and more energy.” That concern was put to rest straight away. In one audition, an amazing group performed and then this little girl walked on. I thought, “Poor girl,” but the second she started dancing, she blew us out of the water.

For a typical dancer or instructor, there’s only so much money that you can make in your career. So having a competition where we’re giving away a big prize is like giving back what a dancer deserves for how much hard work, blood, sweat, tears and passion they put into dance.  I have a lot of compassion for the contestants because I’ve been on the other side and I know how much goes into this, day in and day out—how scary and nerve-racking it can be. But to have $1 million on the line? I don’t know what that’s like. That’s another amount of pressure that I can’t even think about.

As the judges score the contestants, we break the performances down for choreography, creativity, execution and audience connection. I like that we can touch on all those things instead of just giving a general number. Many times I had somebody going through to the next round, but the other judges didn’t and the contestant went home. Some weeksI was disappointed in the result—I went home and was sick to my stomach for days. You get invested. But I guess that’s what makes it good TV. We have different opinions and we’re going to disagree.

Dancing with the Stars - Derek Hough

When it comes time to vote on the winner, I will be freaking out. We are making a decision that will change someone’s life! I definitely feel that pressure.

The greatest lesson I have learned from the experience was to really listen to my instincts and trust my opinion. This is my first time judging, but it felt very natural. I love coaching. I love teaching. I love learning and seeing things I’ve never seen before. Watching people push their limits inspires me. I’m not done dancing, by any means—I’m certainly here as a judge, but I’m very much still in the peak of what I’m doing in my career. These dancers inspire me. They fuel me. They excite me.—As told to Marisa Roffman

World of Dance, Tuesdays, 10/9c, NBC