Dancing with the Stars judge Derek Hough is unequivocally a producer by nature. For decades, his work has involved choreography, assembling performances, and organizing tours; he’s not new to the nuanced game of coordinating logistics and paying close attention to the aesthetics of a massive event, and neither is his fiancée, Hayley Erbert. She’s been an avid dancer since she was three, has toured upwards of five times, and has performed on six seasons of Dancing With the Stars.
As two people who understand large-scale projects like the back of their hands, it should come as no surprise that they have drawn parallels between tour production and wedding planning. The irony of this isn’t lost on Derek or Hayley, who are currently juggling both—they’re busy planning a wedding while also figuring out the logistics of their next tour, which is set to kick off in the fall of 2023.
Well before wedding planning even began, Derek had an opportunity to start honing his organizational prowess in a way unrelated to dance: In June of 2022, after seven years of dating, Derek was ready to pop the question, but he knew only something ultra-romantic and personal would do. Though he considered a few alternative locations, Derek quickly settled on proposing in the home the couple shares—something they both agree was just so them.
"We really built our life in this home," Derek explains. "It made sense to do it in the place where we grew our relationship.”
But that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to pull out all the stops. Derek wanted to transform the space into something otherworldly, so he brought in backup and asked their now-wedding planner, Troy Williams of Simply Troy Lifestyle + Events, to take the lead on setting the scene.
To pull off the ultimate surprise, Derek schemed (using what Hayley calls a little “playful reverse psychology”) to get soon-to-be fiancée out of the house for the day; a friend convinced Hayley that Derek was itching to go on a helicopter ride, so the duo set out for an adventure that she thought she planned, but she had actually been following Derek’s lead all along.
While they were gone, their home was transformed into a dreamy, atmospheric paradise complete with wall-to-wall flowers and candles, and it was the ideal backdrop for what Hayley calls the ultimate surprise. “He's usually really bad at surprises, so I was shocked that I had no idea the entire time,” she laughs. “Our space was completely transformed. I walked into the house and didn’t even recognize it.”
Surprise, Derek soon realized, would be a common thread throughout the wedding planning process. When we asked Derek to share the first word that comes to mind when he thinks of the planning journey so far, he immediately responded with “surprising.” Not only has he developed an appreciation for the work professional wedding planners do each day, but he’s also discovered that orchestrating a ceremony and reception requires a lot more effort than simply compiling Instagram folders of inspiration and envisioning the aesthetic of the big day.
Hayley’s word for wedding planning? Stubborn. “I’m really standing my ground,” she says, explaining that she’s heard from so many people that conceding to too many outside opinions can lead to a wedding day that may not feel truly, authentically you. “I’m doing what I want,” she says. “I’m doing what we want.”
If there’s one thing the duo, who have now been engaged for nearly a year, has learned about wedding planning so far, it’s that there is a delicate balance between designing the celebration of their dreams and ensuring that they don’t get too caught up in the “production” of it all. To avoid the latter scenario, they’re getting as much done as early as possible so that they can enjoy every moment when the big day comes. “The reason why we want to plan so much and make sure that the wedding is a well-oiled machine is so that we can be relaxed, focus on each other, and be very present [during the wedding],” Derek explains.
They also make a concerted effort to remind each other what really matters. “At the end of the day we come back to, ‘Why are we doing this? What is the reason for this?’ And the reason is for the two of us,” Derek says. “That's really it.”
What’s abundantly clear is that Derek and Hayley are leaning on one another for collaboration and feedback throughout the wedding planning process, exactly as they do when prepping for any other large event or production; it’s teamwork, and it’s what they’ve always done, as natural to the two of them as performing a foxtrot or a waltz. “Hayley is taking the helm, but I’m definitely involved,” Derek says. Hayley agrees, noting that she thinks he’s more involved than most grooms (the word “groomzilla” may have been tossed out with a laugh during the interview).
“At the very beginning of it all, before we even started planing, I asked, ‘What are the things that are more important to you?’” Hayley explains. For Derek—in a true testament to his visionary nature—it was the lighting, fireworks (which he very much so hopes the wedding venue will allow), and mapping out the minute details of musical moments. He’s focused on creating a vibe, an aesthetic, and a sense of place.
On the other end of the spectrum, Hayley’s priorities have been the ceremony (Derek gushes that the space she chose is stunning) and the couple’s wedding vows, which they are writing themselves. If there is one balance they have expertly struck, it’s letting each partner take the lead on the elements they’re best at.
Though the divide and conquer approach works well for the couple, there are some high-priority tasks they’re crossing off their to-do list together, and the guest list is one key example. They’re being intentional about who they choose to spend the special day with. “A rule that we’ve set is that we don’t want to catch up with people on the day of the wedding,” says Hayley. “We’re inviting people that maybe we haven't seen in a while, but every time we get together with them, it's like we pick up right where we left off, or they’re people that have been consistently in our lives throughout the years. We're not going to catch up with people, we're just gonna have a blast with people.”
Another priority is designing a celebration that feels balanced from start to finish: They want their entire wedding weekend to be beautiful, special, and different, and a stuffy event is absolutely not in the cards.
“We’re fun!” Derek laughs. “What we gravitate towards isn’t always the most lavish option.” A mac and cheese bar, he says, is more their speed than a filet mignon dinner, and corn dogs (whether prepared by a five-star chef or available from a food truck) will absolutely be on the menu during the rehearsal dinner. “We're playing with different approaches to certain things so that the day still feels elegant and beautiful and magical, but grounded and down to earth and just approachable,” the groom-to-be adds. “We want the entire day to be a blast.”
The feeling of the wedding—grounded, approachable—also translates to what they want their guests’ experiences to be. It’s essential to both Derek and Hayley that their family members and friends come away with an understanding of the couple’s bond. “I just want everyone to feel our love,” Hayley says. “I want them to be able to say, ‘Oh, these two are so in love. It's so obvious why they're doing this now.’”
If there is one thing the couple knows from their professional lives, it’s that a production’s success comes down to the team working on it, which is why Derek and Hayley have worked tirelessly to curate a talented group of wedding experts to bring their day to life. How have they picked the right people? “It’s an energy thing,” says Derek. “It’s a vibe.”
Hayley agrees: Getting on a phone call, video call, or meeting in person is essential to making sure they’ve found the right fit, whether it’s with a planner, photographer, caterer, or florist. “You do want to look at the success of these people and the final product that they’ve put out there,” Hayley advises. “But it’s also about getting together with them to see if there’s an energy connection. You have to be able to say, ‘This is the type of person that I want with me all day long.’”
Something else Derek and Hayley have learned along the way is the importance of managing expectations. This is a big piece of the planning puzzle for any couple—there will always be things that are out of your control or things you can’t predict—and one that can be particularly challenging to navigate when lots of personalities are involved.
To that end, the pair has a motto they try to live by, both in everyday life and as they dream up their wedding day: Trading expectation for appreciation. “If we just have expectations, we’re 100 percent going to be let down because nothing's ever going to be perfect,” Derek explains. “We always find a moment to appreciate what's going on. We can always find that. But if we live in expectation, we're basically setting ourselves up for disappointment.”
One of the biggest parts of managing expectations—and one of the toughest parts of the entire process—has been navigating the budget, Derek explains. Sticker shock, he says, is a very real thing. “It’s a very eye-opening experience, and when you start to add everything up, it’s pretty wild,” Derek admits. Hayley agrees, but adds that the hardest part of wedding planning for her has been something far less concrete than budgeting. It’s about learning how to manage other people’s emotions—one of the most notoriously nuanced pieces of planning a wedding. “That’s where I’ve had to stand my ground and be stubborn. This is our day, this is our weekend, this is our wedding,” she says. “It’s managing the expectations of other people.”
When the couple considers what has felt easiest throughout the planning process, Hayley says it’s been picking the venue—something that took a little more time for Derek. That’s a perfect example of how they’re balancing tasks and finding the right give-and-take approach.
Derek is ecstatic about picturing the design details and the visuals (Hayley notes that he’s even fully imagined the down-to-the-second details of their first dance, including the timing of his much sought-after fireworks) but he has a harder time conceptualizing the big picture elements; tasks like picking a ceremony venue that’s just right are more of a struggle for him, but this is the area where Hayley thrives. Between his detail-oriented mind and her decisive execution, they’re well on their way to creating the wedding day of their dreams.
Though they’re still knee-deep in the planning process, Derek and Hayley are well-poised to offer some important advice for other couples. For many pairings, a big moment during the wedding is the first dance, and Derek and Hayley understand how intimidating this can feel—no one wants to get on the dance floor and feel like they have two left feet in front of all their loved ones. To that, Derek advises signing up for a dance lesson or two. “But make sure that you’re going into it for fun,” he urges. If a formal lesson is going to leave either of you feeling anything other than excited, skip it.
Hayley agrees, adding that it's important to really consider whether or not a few lessons will boost your confidence on the big day. “If dancing in front of people gives you major anxiety, then I would highly recommend taking lessons; do whatever you need to do to feel more confident on the day,” she says.
As for Derek and Hayley's first dance as Mr. and Mrs.? It won’t be a major performance. “We perform for a living, so we just want this dance to be for us,” Hayley says. “We don’t want to perform for anyone else.”
Derek doesn’t want to spend what should be an incredibly romantic, meaningful moment wondering if their moves look technically perfect. Instead, his goal is for both of them to be able to let go, to be in the moment and to relish in the joy of sharing their first dance as husband and wife. “We want to feel good and comfortable, but we don’t need to be perfect… That’s a lot less important to me than just looking into her eyes as we're rocking back and forth. I want to feel truly present in that moment.”
For Derek and Hayley, tackling wedding planning as a team has been a learning experience—yes, they’re discovering the world of weddings, but they’re also discovering new things about each other, about their relationship, and finding an appreciation for the beautiful moments in life. “We try to find joy and gratitude in every second of the day,” says Hayley. “There's always something beautiful, there's always something good that is happening, even if there are crazy things that are happening as well.” Wedding planning may be one of the busier phases of their life together, but the couple has, no doubt, found a way to stick to their mantra of trading expectations for appreciation.
“At the end of the day, what matters is what this represents, the symbolism of it all,” says Derek. And what it symbolizes is, of course, the two of them: Derek and Hayley.
Talent Derek Hough and Hayley Erbert
Photographer Amy and Stuart Photography
Director of Photography Brandon Scott Smith
Editorial Director Gabriella Rello Duffy
Creative Director Jenna Brillhart
Senior Fashion Editor Corinne Pierre-Louis
Video Director Justine Manocherian
Photo Director Kelly Chiello
Stylist Apuje Kalu
Men's Wearhouse Stylist Rachel Fawkes
Hair Jill Buck
Makeup Spencer Barnes
AC Derek Smith
Production Caroline Santee Hughes for Hyperion LA
Location Santa Monica Proper Hotel
Booking Talent Connect Group Talent Connect Group