Shawn Johnson and Derek Hough

After sitting last week out on Dancing with the Stars because of a neck injury, Derek Hough is back and here to stay. "I feel good and my goal is to finish the season," he tells "There are only a few weeks left and I'm going to try to finish strong." While he took a break, his BFF Mark Ballas stepped in to dance with Shawn Johnson, with whom Ballas won Season 8, and the three are back together again this week for their samba trio — which will bend, if not break, the rules. Why is Hough so intent on not playing by the book? Find out below. Plus: Is this his last season?

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How's your neck?
Derek Hough:
It's so much better. I was actually really worried because it wasn't getting much better until Monday. I was hoping to get back in by Saturday so Shawn would feel comfortable dancing with me by Monday, but it wasn't happening. But a couple reasons why I didn't dance as well, which is very unlike me in the first place — I usually push through and pain doesn't usually stop me — are because my neck had been bothering me for years and this was more intense than usual. And I didn't want to jeopardize the integrity of the choreography and hurt Shawn. It's Shawn's competition and I'm here to assist her to do the best she could possibly do. I don't want to have to sacrifice the choreography for me.

Was it bittersweet watching her get her first 30 this season with Mark and not you?
Nah. I joked around with Shawn afterward. I said, "That's OK. I've had plenty." [Laughs] This is her first one this season, but I was like, "It's cool." She was really sweet and said, "I wanted to dance with you to get my first 30." Honestly, it's nice to be able to choreograph a dance and watch what you created instead doing it.

And now you're back with Mark again for the samba trio. I'm assuming that was a no-brainer pick for you guys.
Yeah. We work well together and she obviously already knows him. We're like brothers and sister. It's very much a family affair for sure.

How are the dances going?
Good. I'm very excited about both dances. They're two very different dances. [The Viennese waltz] — we're dedicating to veterans who are going to be in the audience and all vets for Veteran's Day. The trio is going to be something that hasn't been seen necessarily on this show.

Are you breaking the rules again?
I don't know if it's breaking the rules, but it's one of those things where it's Season 15, and I feel like the audience has kind of seen everything, so it's like, what can we do differently and how can we reinvent something they've seen before? That's sort of what it is. ... Last season, for our trio, I did a Bollywood-themed samba, which had never been on the show before. And this season, they included Bollywood, so next season, maybe this will be another style they add. [Laughs]

You're just pioneering so many things for the show.
[Laughs] I guess, if you want to call it that!

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Are you cleared to perform the rest of the season?
Yeah, and I absolutely want to finish the season. I'm definitely going for it.

You tweeted that you're going to need surgery and have put it off in the past.
Yeah, and what's happened in the past is that my neck is in bad shape and when I feel better, I tend to move on and not think about it. But this time, I need to take care of it. I want to do other projects. If I were to do a Broadway show or something, I would hate to have to pull out because of a neck injury.

Has it been scheduled?
It's not scheduled yet. We're playing it by ear right now and see where we're at after the season and see the timing and all those factors.

There are lots of rumors that this is your last season. Can you confirm anything?
I can't confirm anything. But no matter what, I'll always be part of the show. I'll always be on hand if they need me or want me. But I'm also interested in having time to pursue other things. I've taken a season off before, but to do something significant, I think you need more time than three months. But like I said, nothing is definite right now and I'll always be part of the show. I'm a strong ambassador for it and I'll always be here for it.

Almost everyone picked you guys to win when the cast was announced. Do you feel pressure to win?
I don't feel pressure to win, but I feel pressure to do good dances. Winning — that's out of your hands, especially when the public vote and judges' scores are involved. All I can control is doing good work. We've done some memorable performances. Whatever happens, I'll always be proud of our dances this season.

I like that you guys take the risk to break rules knowing that it's going to be worth it for the entertainment value and not complaining about getting docked afterward.
I feel like because it's Season 15, we have to push the rules. Quite honestly, I could've done routines that were less interesting, easier and ones the judges probably would've liked more in terms of [following] the rules, and we could've maybe gotten better scores. But I realized after doing the show for so long that the scores only last as long as the season. You can get a perfect score and get eliminated. After the season is finished, what lasts forever are the dances. I always tell my partners, "Let's not dance for scores. Let's dance for YouTube videos." Two years down the line, when you're sitting at home having a glass of wine and you stumble upon a video of your cha-cha, you're like, "Oh, my God! I loved that dance!" That's what I want.

Read Maks' Dancing blog

Some fans think you're putting too many gymnastics tricks into your routines, but there's no rule saying you can't use your partner's strengths to your advantage.
Right. As a choreographer, I think our job is to hide weaknesses and show strengths. Everyone has different strengths. I know when Shawn first did the show, she maybe did two things that were acrobatic and I just wanted to see what else I could do to showcase her and her athletic ability. I've been trying to take advantage of that as much as I possibly can just because she can do them. It would be a crime to not do more with that. Having said that, we don't do them just to do them. They still have to fit in with the routine. I don't choreograph the routines around flips and tricks.

My favorite moment this season was the look on your face when you learned your team freestyle song was "Call Me Maybe." You didn't even bother hiding your disdain. What was going through your mind?
[Laughs] Well, normally, when I get the music, I immediately get ideas. But with that song, I was just blank. There was nothing. It was just void — the abyss. I was like, "What are we going to do with this song?!" And also the other team got ["Gangnam Style"], which has this driving beat, is energetic and fun. Whatever they do, people were going to love it because it's such a fun song. With "Call Me Maybe," I was like, "Crap!" But we knew we had to do something that has a clear theme that's visual, and thankfully we did. But it didn't look good at first!

On a serious note, Brooke [Burke-Charvet] announced she has thyroid cancer. What was your reaction when you found out?
Yeah, it was just shocking, I think, for everyone. It's one of those things that gives you perspective on life. Brookie B. is my girl. I can't think of enough words to describe her. She's one of the most amazing and strongest people I know and I know she will get through this. She's got our love and support, and we're behind her all the way.

Dancing with the Stars airs Mondays and Tuesdays at 8/7c on ABC.