Anyone who's given the hit TV series Dancing With the Stars even a cursory glance knows the names Mark Ballas and Derek Hough. Since 2006, the two professional ballroom dancers both led their celebrity partners to victory in successive seasons, trading in months of grueling practice and competition for one highly coveted Mirror Ball trophy. "I love to entertain people," says Mark, who took the crown on season 6 with Olympian Kristi Yamaguchi (Derek won in season 7 with Brooke Burke). "Seeing people smile and enjoy themselves, that's what I live for."
But entertaining audiences never took one form for Mark or Derek. The two best friends have been playing and making music together for more than a decade, in between touring theatrical productions and ballroom competitions. And like every achievement they've crossed off their collective to-do list, a career in music was a dream they worked towards tirelessly. "To play gigs in London, we often had to take the Tube," Derek recalls. "We'd carry all our gear -- amps, guitars, keyboards -- down those mile-long escalators and onto the train. For a while, we were doing that almost every weekend!"
Mark and Derek's love of music was apparent from a very young age. Mark got his first guitar when he was seven, around the same time Derek began playing the drums. By the time they were in their early teens, the two had both mastered the guitar and began writing songs that showcased their unique talents: three and four-part harmonies (a skill honed during years in the musical theatre circuit), Mark's percussive, Flamenco-flavored playing style and a natural affinity for irresistible melodies.
Music of all forms and genres constantly filled the Ballas' London home, where Derek lived since the age of 12, and was also a key component to their dance routines, so the pull was natural. The guys' musical bond, however, came from a seemingly unlikely place: a Korn concert at London's Wembley Arena. "Until that point, I wasn't allowed to listen to bands like Nirvana," says Derek, who, along with his sister Julianne (herself a two-time Dancing with the Stars champion), was raised in a very conservative household. Mark, however, was determined to open his friend's mind. "I was like, 'Dude, stop being a wuss,' and I took him to see Korn for his first concert," he says. "We threw him on top of the crowd and it was like the transformation had been made."
While still years away from entering a pub legally, the conversion stirred hopes of becoming a touring band and Mark went to task finding players to round out the as-yet-unnamed project. He didn't have to search far. Harry Sullivan, whose parents were close with the Ballas family, was enlisted to play drums, and Emily Grace, a classically trained pianist and classmate from London's Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, was a no-brainer for keyboards. They found their bassist, Sam Marder, by cold-calling Surrey's prestigious Academy of Contemporary Music. "We phoned up the school and sort of made up this story about how we were getting signed and needed a bass player," says Derek. "They gave us three phone numbers and Sam was the first person we called."
That impulsiveness served them well in the years to come. Case in point: when the guys were both offered spots on the U.S. version of Dancing with the Stars, they accepted, though they worried that music would end up taking a backseat. "Moving from London to Los Angeles, where we didn't know anyone... We just weren't sure," Mark explains. "But then we thought, we've been sitting around in England for years struggling. Forget it, let's just go. So we arrived in LA with no car and nowhere to live, just a guitar and a suitcase. And since then, we've been working towards our dream."