It’s all about the (e)motion for dancer and choreographer Derek Hough

The word “serve” comes up frequently in conversation with Derek Hough.

Not in the sense of other people serving him — which might not be unexpected given his celebrity status — but him serving others through his job on TV’s World of Dance (and before that, Dancing With the Stars) or on tour (he’s got a solo one coming up next year), or presenting at the iHeartRadio Much Music Video Awards, or speaking at the World Fitness Expo in Toronto on Friday.

“That’s what it’s about right there,” he says when asked why he’s taking part in the expo. “Moments to help and serve in some way and not just perform.”

Hough is the first to admit it wasn’t always that way for him.

Born in Salt Lake City, the only boy among four sisters, he began dancing at age 11 and by age 12 had moved to London, England, to train in ballroom with legendary dancers Corky and Shirley Ballas, and attend the prestigious Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts. By 18, he was a Latin ballroom world junior champion.

“Being the competitor that I was, going all around the world when I was 12 years old was very much an ‘I’ thing or a ‘me’ thing: I want to be the best, I want to be the champion,” says Hough, who’s now 33, in a phone interview.

“That’s actually not a bad thing, but I feel like it’s not sustainable. It’s much more fulfilling when you can help another, when you can serve another and help somebody be their best.”

It’s a lesson Hough says he began to learn when he joined TV’s Dancing With the Stars in 2007, as one of the professional dancers paired with celebrities with little to no dance experience. Hough, who followed his younger sister Julianne onto the show, went on to win its mirrorball trophy with his partners a record six times — as well as two Emmy Awards for choreography.

“Being a coach, being the person who was trying to help these wonderful women do things that they never thought they possibly could ever do, to see that transformation was extraordinary,” Hough says.

“It really taught me a lot.”

He left DWTS in 2016 and joined World of Dance, which has become a hit for NBC and for CTV Two here in Canada (airing Wednesdays at 8 p.m.). It was recently renewed for a third season. Hough was recruited by executive producer Jennifer Lopez to join the competition’s judging panel with her and singer/actor/dancer Ne-Yo.

“What I love about World of Dance, it’s positive, it’s feel-good,” Hough says.

Dancers — whom Hough calls “artist athletes” — from around the world compete for a $1-million (U.S.) prize.

“There’s never been a time where somebody comes on the stage and we tear them down,” adds Hough. “We’re not in the business of breaking dreams; we’re in the business of feeding them.”

Hough says he loves the fact that everyone involved with the series is passionate about dance.

Looking back on his own passion for the practice, Hough says that, at first, joining a dance studio made him feel like part of a community, no small thing for a kid who normally felt like he didn’t fit in.

And when the music came on and he learned to move his body to it, “something happened. It’s almost like this alignment where I feel like myself, I feel conscious … For me there’s something about moving your body, being in touch with your body, listening to music, syncing those two together that just forces you into the moment.”

Though he may not be performing as part of his current TV gig, dancing is something he hopes to keep doing indefinitely.

His solo U.S. tour, co-created with well known hip-hop choreographers Napoleon and Tabitha D’umo, kicks off in April 2019 in Charlotte, N.C. Incorporating ballroom, tap, salsa, hip hop and other styles, Hough says it will help him to keep growing and learning. That feeds into the message he’ll bring to the World Fitness Expo, which runs Wednesday to Sunday at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre: to keep moving.

“Motion equals emotion,” says the dancer, singer and actor. “The way you move really affects the way you feel emotionally.”

Hough — who released a bestselling book in 2014, Taking the Lead: Lessons From a Life in Motion — also advocates “working out” emotionally as well by striving to “keep learning, opening your mind and heart, and living openheartedly.”

Taking stock of his own life, something he recommends doing in his book, Hough says he has “a lot of gratitude and a lot of appreciation for where my life has taken me and the paths I’ve been on,” as well as for the people who guided him along the way.

Those paths have included taking the lead in a U.K. production of Footloose: The Musical; a 2013 feature film, Make Your Move (partly shot in Toronto); a lead role in TV movie Hairspray Live!; a recurring role on the series Nashville; choreographing for Olympic ice-dancing champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White; and being an ambassador for the Invictus Games in Toronto, among other things.

After Friday’s appearance, the Los Angeles-based Hough will be back in Toronto — a city he says he loves — on Aug. 26 for the MMVAs.

And what comes next for the man who’s always looking for new challenges? Hough says Broadway is definitely on his to-do list, but he adds that his future endeavours don’t necessarily have to be about performing and entertaining, “as long as there’s an element of connecting with people and serving.”

There’s that word again.