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'DWTS' champ Hough sets stage for Davis, White

Renowned dancer steps into unknown to work with Olympic favorites
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'Dancing with the Stars' fans have been witnessing the creative imprint of five-time champion Derek Hough (shown with Season 17 partner Amber Riley) on the short dance of Meryl Davis and Charlie White. -ABC/Kelsey McNeal

When he received the request to work with two-time world ice dance champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White on their short dance, Derek Hough's initial reaction was to decline. While many people see the five-time Dancing With the Stars (DWTS) champion and Emmy Award winner as capable of doing anything, he was concerned about his lack of experience with skating.

Then his creative passion kicked in.

"Whenever I say I can't do something, I always say I must do it," Hough, 28, said. "I thought, 'I must figure it out. I must find a way.'

"We ended up getting into the dance studio, and it was great. They're the most amazing people -- amazing hearts, amazing spirits and just good, all-around people."

Hough's work with Davis, 27, and White, 26, began last spring in the dance studio. At the conclusion of Season 16 of DWTS, which he won partnering country singer Kellie Pickler, he went to their training base in Detroit and worked with them on the ice.

"When we actually ended up going to the rink and seeing them putting it on ice, it was remarkable to see how they translated it onto the ice," Hough said. "It was so impressive."

For Hough, accepting the challenge of choreographing in a new medium was part of his progression and growth as an artist. He said he feels compelled to challenge himself and experience the unknown because that's when exciting things happen.

What many people may not know about Hough is that he had very little experience as a teacher and choreographer before joining DWTS in 2007. He quickly learned not only how to teach but also how to showcase each of his celebrity partners to best effect. He has also tried to imbue the celebrities with his love of embracing the unknown.

Not to say that accepting the creative challenge of working with Davis and White on their My Fair Lady program didn't make him nervous. Given the high standards and the expectations placed on them, he was intent to do it justice.

"For me, Charlie is very fluid when he skates, which was very good for this particular piece because it's a very fluid piece," Hough said. "It's about taking advantage of their strengths and sort of amplifying that, turning the knob up a little bit to really showcase them.

"That's my job: to be creative in the sense of musicality, dynamics and emotions," he added. "The core of it is to do things that complement their ability."

Hough felt OK on the ice. He hadn't done a lot of skating, but he does have a few fond memories, most notably of a ballroom competition he did in Paris where there was a skating rink in front of the hotel. When they weren't dancing, he and his friends were skating.

Davis and White's openness to learning impressed Hough greatly.

"That's why they're champions," he said. "A champion is somebody who continues to learn and to grow. They never settle on what they've achieved. They don't get complacent. They seek out and find new ways and new things to improve.

"For me, it was an honor to be able to step into that world for a moment and to work with the champions," he added. "I was so blessed to be a part of that."

Hough worked to give the program authenticity and a feeling of seamlessness despite the reality of the short dance, which combines individual choreography with a set pattern from the compulsory Finnstep. He created a mood that helps Davis and White perform the Finnstep as if it was created just for them. The duo's long partnership shows in their connection.

"I wanted to lend my insight in dance," Hough said. "What was more special for me was to see this couple that has been together for so long and have such a long history -- I wanted to feel the emotion and the history behind it. I wanted to feel the gratitude of their journey."

He has watched videos of Davis and White as the season has progressed, and he is impressed with the dance's evolution. Coaches Marina Zoueva and Oleg Epstein were instrumental in translating Hough's dance vision to the ice.

"It's really exciting to see," Hough said.

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