One scene in "Blessed: The Life of a Hip Hop Dancer" takes place on a busy Manhattan street. Dancers in everyday clothing portray trendy New Yorkers walking briskly to a driving hip-hop beat. They talk on their cellphones with great urgency and generally give the impression of productivity and satisfaction. The illusion is shattered when, for no apparent reason, the dancers suddenly double over at the waist like wind-up toys at the end of their springs. It's a humorous moment, particularly for anyone who has ever lived in New York City.
Despite its decidedly urban feel, this hip-hop performance was made in Vermont -- by Sarah Cover, a Mont-pelier native and hip-hop dancer-choreographer. Cover formed Tikune Produc-tions last fall and, in December, the company played its inaugural "Blessed" to sold-out houses at Burlington's FlynnSpace and Club Metronome.
Turns out it was a preview of coming attractions. This month, Cover is bringing some of the freshest dance talent from Los Angeles and New York City to Burlington with a hip-hop convention called "Urban Reach."
You might not recognize the names of the featured instructors: Jayson Wright, Tracy Carter, "Tavia" and "Tamara," to name a few. But you've likely heard of some of the celebrities who rely on their choreography, such as Missy Elliot, Mario, P.Diddy, JayZ, Justin Timberlake, LL Cool J and Sean Paul. As a dance teacher at the Flynn Center and at Contemporary Dance and Fitness in Montpelier, Cover makes every effort to stay current in the world of hip-hop dance -- she makes frequent trips to New York City and recently studied at the Millennium Dance Complex in Los Angeles.
Cover was at a large hip-hop dance convention in New Jersey -- the "Monsters of Hip-Hop" -- when
she got the idea of bringing big-name b-boys and b-girls to Burlington. In a post-show Q&A, she asked Marty Kudelka, one of the world's most in-demand hip-hop choreographers, "What do you do when your students are surpassing you, when they need more than you?" Kudelka told Cover to keep doing what she was doing -- improving her own skills and helping her students into situations to better themselves. Ultimately, he offered her guidance, advice, connections and the model for a business plan that led to Urban Reach.
At 34, Sarah Cover is as fresh-faced and energetic as a finalist in the Miss America Pageant. She doesn't seem like a hip-hop dancer -- until she starts to move, clearly at home with the tricky rhythms and attitude-laden gestures that make hip-hop fun to do but hard to master. Her long dancer's legs are articulate. In the space of four driving beats of hip-hop music, she can turn 360 degrees in a Michael Jackson-like spin, stop on a dime, and then go into a wide hip-hop lunge, all the while giving off a vibe that would make you think twice about disagreeing with her.
Cover began taking jazz and modern dance classes at Contemporary Dance and Fitness in Montpelier at age 7. Five years later, her family moved to Santa Cruz, California, where 12-year-old Cover got her first exposure to hip-hop. It wasn't in a conservatory. "I watched street dancing in underground clubs, mimicked it, broke it down," she explains. With one foot in formal training and the other in high tops, Cover has a pedigree and a "street cred" that's uncommon among hip-hop teachers in Vermont.
Cover got her first professional gig in 1991, in a touring Vegas-style revue. She was 18. Three years later, she found herself living in New York City, picking up moves from a different source. "Dance clubs were the hub of the exchange of dance information," she explains. "People went to the club, then went back to the 'hood."
Getting connected in the industry wasn't all glamorous. Cover was lucky enough to become good friends with DMX's producer, Swizz Beat. She eventually met DMX by serving as a receptionist and cleaning -- for free -- the recording studio where Swizz and DMX hung out. Being on the fringes of the hip-hop industry was not easy, she confesses. Summing up the more popular roles for women, she says in an imagined voice, "Are you a girlfriend? Groupie? What are you?"
To pay the bills, she took a job as a nanny and worked nights as a bartender at Tequillaville. Luckily, the bar was right around the corner from two of the Big Apple's music industry meccas: Sam Ash -- "one of the few instrument stores that sell samplers," as Cover puts it, and Manny's Music. "Producers were always going in and out," she recalls. This proximity allowed Cover to rub elbows with a wide variety of people in the hip-hop scene -- some on their way up, others on their way down. Almost everyone had a story or something to say about the biz, and Cover took it all in.
After living, dancing, and choreographing on the East and West Coasts, as well as Japan, with acts like DMX, Memphis Bleek and Wu-Tang Clan, Cover felt a longing for the ephemeral "more," she says. She enrolled at Vermont College, where she took classes in comparative religion and eventually earned a Bachelor's degree in nutrition. Still not completely satisfied, she went to Europe for six weeks. Upon returning to New York, she made the decision to come home to Vermont. Her timing was fortuitous -- Cover left the city on September 9, 2001.
To ease the transition, she says, "I put everything into teaching." She taught at Morrisville's People's Academy, the Dance Academy in Stowe, Contemporary Dance and Fitness in Montpelier and Burlington's Flynn Center. The classes were a big success. Enrollment in her Flynn classes nearly tripled.
"Blessed" loosely tells the story of Cover's own experience in the industry. The company's 12 women and seven men portray some of the significant people in her life, from teenagers trading moves in a schoolyard to fellow dancers at a music video audition.
Although the title of the piece makes clear what style of dance the audience should expect, the piece begins with the depiction of a ballet class. Lindsay Richardson as the young Sarah arrives late on the first day of class and is clearly uncomfortable there. In the following scene she sees other kids doing hip-hop and break-dancing, and wins them over by imitating their moves.
In one of the evening's last dances, Cover herself enters wearing jeans, a "Blessed" T-shirt and a baseball cap that says "b-girl." She hands an identical cap to the young Sarah. More of a prize than a present, the hat seems to signal the end of one journey and the beginning of another. The two dancers move in easy synchronization. Young Sarah occasionally casts down her eyes modestly. Older Sarah is more buoyant and joyful. She rarely takes her eyes off the young dancer. The relationship is clearly one of affection and forgiveness -- Cover's for her younger self.
Barre resident BJ Paulin, 12, is also in the show. He had been taking jazz and tap for two years when he started taking hip-hop with Cover last year. It's improved his social status. Now, "Other kids don't make fun of me," he says. "They think it's cool." Comparing her to other instructors who taught him break-dancing, he explains, "Sarah is more footwork."
The class environment is disciplined. "You can't chew gum in her class. You can't lean on stuff. She calls you on it if you're not dancing full out. But you can tell how much she loves what she is doing," notes Ali Zura of Essex Junction.
Adrienne Noordeweir, 47 and mother of four, didn't perform in "Blessed," but is a fan of Cover's classes. She likes the fast pace and says the moves "are put together in an interesting way."
Paulin, Noordeweir and Zura are all excited at the prospect of having first-rate, nationally known hip-hop dance talent in Burlington through Urban Reach. Zura says she wants to overcome "the misconception about white, rural kids doing hip-hop."
Cover says she doesn't regret for a minute not living in New York or L.A. "Without the support and friendship of the community and love, it's not real success. We're here to make a difference in each other's lives. My destiny wasn't to be in the city working with people I don't know. It was to be doing it with Vermonters."