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The Art Of... Hip-Hop 

The Urban Dance Complex in Williston is thumping on a Wednesday night. Fluorescent lights buzz over "graffiti"-covered walls, and the unmistakable voice of Rihanna undulates over heavy bass. The two studios are packed. In one, a hoard of 16- to 18-year-old boys and girls are popping, locking, stomping and shaking. Nearly 20 7- to 9-year-old girls are learning choreography in another.

This isn't old-school street hip-hop. Nowadays, hip-hop is a structured dance form, which, since the early 2000s, has been a popular offering at children's dance studios. One reason? Hip-hop is cool, and kids know it. Remember in 2009 when YouTube blew up with videos of babies grooving to Beyonce's "All the Single Ladies"?

"My daughter was one of those babies," says Sarah Cover, director of UDC, which also has studios in Colchester and Middlebury. "You can tell that rhythm starts really young," she says, noting that UDC offers hip-hop classes for kids as young as 3.

Cover makes sure the music is age appropriate, and in a typical class, young kids play "freeze games," which are a twist on musical chairs. Dancers freestyle until the music cuts short, and then they freeze exactly where they are. "It gets them to learn for themselves to feel the music," says Cover.

Instructors also teach the kids technical moves and footwork. The 7- to 9-year-olds are "incredibly focused," says Cover. They learn how to travel across the floor and how to change directions and turn choreography around, doing a sequence of steps in one direction, then changing them to travel the opposite way. This skill, she says, is "incredible for brain development."

"I think anything that gets a kid off the couch is great," says Cover, noting that because a lot of kids already like listening to hip-hop, getting them to come out for this type of dance is an easier sell than, say, a ballet class. Besides, Cover adds, "dance, in general, is great for their body awareness."

In the studio that Wednesday night, 7-year-olds Abby and Payton are learning choreography. Every time the instructor stops the music, the girls try out a move they just learned: Backs together, arms linked, one girl bends forward, lifting the other off the ground.

Abby and Payton do a lot of dancing — ballet, jazz and hip-hop. They're not shy about picking favorites.

"I want to be a famous hip-hop dancer," says Abby, a leopard-print winter hat pulled low over her forehead.

"We moved from a different jazz class because it wasn't fun," says Payton.

And what about ballet?

"In ballet, you sometimes just repeat stuff," Payton proclaims.

With hip-hop, Abby points out, "you get to move fast and it's, like, cool."

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