She's killer when she cha-chas and he's magic with the mambo. She can tame the tango and the man. And he can turn a clumsy misstep into a grace note.
Julianne Hough, 19, and her brother Derek, 22, are quite simply among the very best dancers on the planet. The Houghs have been dancing for nearly a decade, having left their home in Utah as children for a new life of professional training and competition in England. This season, the normally loving brother and sister will tap into some good old-fashioned sibling rivalry as they compete to win the title and the hearts of American viewers on ABC's "Dancing with the Stars."
"For me, it's more 'Hey, you've won already, give me a chance, girl,'" Derek said laughing, referring to Julianne's win on last season's show.
"And of course, I want to beat my older brother," quipped Julianne at his side.
In case you're one of the three people left in the country who's not seen "Dancing with the Stars," the idea is simple: Team a major or minor celebrity with a professional dancer who teaches them a new dance every week. Then hold your breath to see if the high and mighty trips the light fantastic … or just trips.
As the show's stars have fallen one by one, the supernova story now emerging is of a brother and sister still left standing after a life spent dancing.
Born to Dance
Born into a Mormon family with three other siblings, Julianne and Derek had dancing in their DNA. Both sets of grandparents were dancers and their parents actually met on a ballroom dance team in college.
"There is a little heritage there," said their dad, Bruce Hough.
Before the age of 10, Julianne and her brother were dancing competitively, encouraged by their parents who Derek says jokingly saw them as the "blonde Osmonds." A few years later, their parents' divorce would send Derek and Julianne, the youngest Hough siblings, to England. There they would live with and study under the guidance of dance coaches.
"It was hard. Divorce is hard," their mom, Marianne, said.
She is now remarried but still supportive of her children.
"I cried … but I think that's where the kids really developed a lot of strength. Toughness, really," she said.
With their English dance coaches also acting as surrogate parents, Derek and Julianne won a series of world championships, setting the stage for Julianne's victory in her first year as a dancer on season four's "Dancing With the Stars." The winning chemistry between Julianne and then-dance partner, Olympic speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno, was so great, some speculated that it existed off the dance floor as well. That's all rumors and speculation, according to Julianne and her mother.
"I asked her, 'You sure you don't like him, 'cause we all do,'" Marianne said. "She says, 'Mom, it's like dancing with my brother.'"
Trials and Tribulations
When the season began this year, Julianne was back with a new partner -- Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves. Derek joined the show for the first time, teamed with former Beverly Hills 90210 star Jennie Garth, who had some serious doubts about Derek as a leading man.
"I remember my little girls were peering out the windows, watching him walk up the walkway," recalled Garth. "And they came running down, and they were like, he's so young, he looks really little!" she laughed.
But any reservations she may have had based on his appearance were quickly lost when Derek showed amazing calm under pressure, helping Jennie overcome an awkward fall during their second dance together.
"I think it was quick step, and it went really well, and we were sort of flying by the seat of our pants," she recalled. "We had this great move planned for the end, and it was very exciting. Very like brave of us, and we did it, but we didn't account for the dress, and the dress just sort of slipped right under his shoe."
And so went "The Fall" as show fans have dubbed it. Both dancers ended on the ground, but Derek was the first to spring up and offer a mortified Garth his hand and reassuring words.
"I said, 'You know what? Do not worry about this; I've already got a plan. I know next week you're going to come back, we're going to tango, and you're going to do amazing,'" Derek said. "And she did."
He's right. Though they stumbled out of the gate, they've been waltzing with the judges and audience ever since, often winning scores of perfect 10s as they step lightly toward the finals.
Racing to the Finish Line
Meanwhile, Julianne is also nearing the checkered flag with a very spunky race car driver who has control issues.
"I love racing because [with] racing you have to be in control," explained Castroneves, a two-time Indy 500 winner and the youngest to achieve this feat. "But here, I'm not in control of this machine."
For her part, Julianne has taken to the driver's seat very well, working diligently with Castroneves to pull off crowd and judge-pleasing routines each week, while still managing to have fun and yes, amazing chemistry, with a second dance partner. Although she's been known to go wild on them from time to time, something to which her old partner can attest. Castroneves has reached out to Ohno via text message during the season to get feedback and advice on how best to work with the "race car" that is Julianne Hough.
"OK, Julianne is becoming a little wild. What do I do?" recounts Castroneves of a message he sent Ohno. "He'd be text messaging me, 'Great, keep on doing what you're doing,'" he said. "'That's the way she is -- happened to me as well.'"
Castroneves is hoping that a "Dancing With the Stars" win will "happen to him," just as it did for Ohno with Julianne in control of their partnership last season. The rhumba they danced together this week to the usual applause and judges' praise suggested they were on the right track to get there. Derek and his ever-improving partner Jennie Garth are on the same track, however. Which sibling makes it to the finish line first -- if at all -- remains to be seen. But in the eyes of millions of fans, especially their parents, the dancing siblings from Utah, by way of London, are equally fantastic.
Julianne and Derek will both participate in a "Dancing with the Stars" tour, starting this December in Seattle. Click here to learn more.