Derek Hough Joins ‘DWTS’ as Season 29 Judge: ‘It’s Like Coming Back Home’

Derek Hough Wonderful World of Disney Disneyland 60
ABC/Richard Harbaugh

Derek Hough is back on Dancing With the Stars — but on the other side of the dance floor! The 17-time pro (and six-time Mirrorball winner) is a new judge on Season 29 this fall, and “it’s like coming back home,” he told reporters.

After his great experiences on the ABC dancing competition show, “it felt right” to return, he said, so it was an easy yes when he got the call. “I just missed the rhinestones. I missed the sparkles,” he joked. “I love this show so much, always have and always will. Just the joy it brings, the pure entertainment, just what it represents is much-needed right now.”

This change — from pro, last seen in Season 23, to judge — isn’t the only one in the upcoming season. (He’ll be joining Carrie Ann Inaba and Bruno Tonioli, while Len Goodman will be part of the season in a different capacity from the U.K.) Tyra Banks is taking over as host (and serving as an executive producer) for the departing Tom Bergeron (“a legend,” Hough said) and Erin Andrews, and the new judge thinks she’ll “thrive” after seeing her emceeing America’s Got Talent. “I remember watching it and being like, ‘Wow, she’s got amazing energy, she’s full out, she’s ready to play,” he said. “She’ll be fantastic. I’m very optimistic about the addition she’ll bring to it all.” (He’s also looking forward to what she’ll be wearing because “you know she’s going to go turned up to 11 on just the fashion and the style.”

Tyra Banks Dancing With the Stars Key Art


Looking ahead to who he’ll be judging — he did note that he suspects his “focus will definitely be more on the celebrities and their journey and their performance” than on the pros — he, like others, was surprised to see Carole Baskin from Tiger King (which he watched). And while he named ice skater Johnny Weir, The Bachelorette Kaitlyn Bristowe and boy bands’ “original bad boy” AJ McLean of Backstreet Boys as stars he thinks will be great, “it’s hard to say how everybody’s going to do until you see them dance for the first time,” he said.

When it comes to judging (and no, there isn’t a sibling rivalry with sister Julianne, who served on the panel for Seasons 19-21, 23, and 24), he said he’ll “have a lot of compassion [and] empathy” for the competitors due to his past on DWTS. “I’ve experienced every possible thing you can experience on that show as a professional and gone through the triumphs, the failures, the heartbreak, the embarrassments,” Hough explained. “I really want to encourage, motivate, but also be honest and help.” Expect him to be “very physical” in his judging because “I literally can’t contain myself. I’m very physical, I’m very loud in my body language.”

He also offered a bit of early advice to the celebrities: “You have to play full out. You have to be hungry. You have to be committed. You have to be ready to play.” After all, if his success has taught him anything, it’s that it’s a combination of factors that leads to a win. “The choreography definitely plays a big part and the storytelling and the performances and the execution,” he acknowledged, but the connections matter as well, with the audience and between the partners.

And the dancers will be trying to get that Mirrorball trophy while adjusting to changes to keep everyone safe and healthy due to the coronavirus pandemic. “There’s definitely protocol and going to be some visible changes that are going to coincide with the times, but with that said, it’s not going to feel digital. It’s going to feel live. It’s going to be in the room,” Hough promised. “There solutions [aren’t] going to jeopardize the feeling of the show or the interactions or the energy.”

Derek Hough Headshot

(ABC/Frank Ockenfels)

But he sees the benefits in some of the parameters as well. “Being a choreographer, in the past whenever I’m given parameters, I tend to come up with the best stuff,” he said. “I’m optimistic that because of those things, it will create new moments, new experiences, and hopefully things that we’ve not seen before and a feeling we haven’t felt before.”

Plus, while everyone must quarantine from each other — including married pros like Emma Slater and Sasha Farber, Jenna Johnson and Val Chmerkovskiy, and Pasha Pashkov and Daniella Karagach — which can “be very isolating,” he granted, “you’re going to get very close to your partner real quick because that’s going to be pretty much the only person you’re going to see for the next few months. It’s going to make for some either really great relationships or it’s going to get pretty tense pretty quick.”

All this change may leave some to question if they’ll tune in again for the new season, and Hough gets it. “That feeling is totally understandable,” he agreed and offered the assurance that “the heart of the show … the relationships [and] the celebrities and pros’ journey … never will change.”

Does that mean he’ll possibly take the dance floor once again? “I think there’ll definitely be some times where I’m like, ‘Ooh, I just want to get up and dance and move,'” Hough promised. “I’ll get up and dance, for sure. There’ll be some moments for that.”

Dancing With the Stars, Season 29 Premiere, Monday, September 14, 8/7c, ABC