Laurelton choreographer explores stories of incarceration through dance

Omar Edwards taps at a street fair in Laurelton. Edwards will be one of the dancers in choreography Kerri Edge’s new piece, “Reform.”  Eagle  photos by Victoria Merlino.

Omar Edwards taps at a street fair in Laurelton. Edwards will be one of the dancers in choreography Kerri Edge’s new piece, “Reform.” Eagle photos by Victoria Merlino.

By Victoria Merlino

Asking Kerri Edge why she started dancing is like asking why the sky is blue, or why trees sprout leaves.

“It's what my family does. And so it was just natural,” she says, after a pause.I don't remember not being around dance. I was born at the studio, is what they say.” 

The Eagle and Edge meet at a street fair in Laurelton, where the Edge School of the Arts, the dance school she runs with her family, is located. Edge has an intensity about her, and when she moves, she moves with purpose: darting around the street, setting up for a tap dance performance and introducing the Eagle to a host of people that populate her life. 

Her roots run deep in the community, and she knows some prominent people, including Alicia Hyndman, the local assemblymember. We meet in Hyndman’s office, after Edge asks Hyndman to use a bullhorn to announce that the tap performance will start soon. The street show stars Broadway dancer Omar Edwards, who is featured in Edge’s latest dance piece, “Reform,” which premieres on Sept. 20.

“Reform” uses dance to illustrate the lives and hardships of African-American men within the criminal justice system, basing sections of tap dance, film, music and poetry on the real stories of presently and formerly incarcerated people. The September show will be directed by Edge, with Broadway show “Bring In Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk” alumnus Baakari Wilder serving as creative director. 

You can gauge the quality of the show by watching Edwards. “I would never dance with these boys,” Edge says of Edwards, and of the others in the show. Though she is a capable dancer, she says, she can’t tap dance at their level.

Edwards makes tap dancing look as easy as sitting still. His current street surroundings may not be grand — people may be more used to seeing Edwards dancing in “Bring In Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk” or as the Sandman on NBC’s “It’s Showtime at the Apollo” — but Edwards taps on with a beatific smile on his face anyway. 

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When asked if it’s hard to portray the dark subject matter in “Reform” when tapping clearly brings him so much joy, Edwards is pragmatic. “Life is not all light. The sun goes down. It gets dark. And as an artist, you should be able to tell that story,” Edwards tells the Eagle.

The idea for the show spawned out of “4 Little Girls” a dance film Edge made about race relations and the civil rights movement in 1963 Birmingham, Alabama. The title references the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, where four young girls were murdered after Ku Klux Klan members planted and detonated dynamite under the church. The bombing became a flashpoint in the civil rights movement. 

After someone suggested that she turn a segment in the film based on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” into a live piece, she agreed. Edge applied and received $10,000 in funding for a stage version from the Queens Council on the Arts. However, as she continued to work on the project and do research, she realized that basing her show on past events would be an injustice. 

“Why talk about so far in the past when it's such a timely topic now, and we can actually do something about it,” she says about racism and incarceration. “Like you can't do much about the past except teaching it to understand it, but you can do something about the future.”

Edge says she didn’t know about prison life before she met someone who served a 10-year sentence.

I thought I had because of movies. I thought I had heard prison stories and I knew what prison was. And once he started opening up to me I couldn't believe the kinds of things that happened to him,” she says, adding that he told her “torturous things.” 

“And I couldn’t believe it,” Edge says. 

She mentions that she went to high school with Yusef Salaam, a then 15-year-old boy who was convicted of beating and raping a white female jogger in 1989, along with four other black and Hispanic teenagers. The boys were called the Central Park Five, and, years later, they were cleared of all charges after another person came forward and admitted to the crime. 

Edge says the whole school felt bad for Salaam, and knew that he didn’t commit the crime. 

I thought about him often, but I didn't think that he was having a hard time in prison. I thought that the hard time was simply [being] lonely, can't have fun, got to sit still, boring,” she ticks off. “That's what was in my head. It was never in my head that there was fighting and killing and, you know, having to navigate that.”

Once she learned the details that led to his exoneration, her whole opinion changed. 

I felt stupid. I knew that the system was biased but I didn't completely understand how crooked it was,” she said. 

Edge doesn’t like the word “artivist,” though she has given much of her life to educating young people and activating others on social issues. She trained as a young child alongside her sisters at the Bernice Johnson Cultural Arts Center in Jamaica, a historic arts center that trained dancers like Ben Vereen and choreographers like Michael Peters, who choreographed Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and “Beat It” music videos. 

As a teen, she started teaching dance to children, eventually opening up ESOTA, and serving as creative director. She wants to continue to pass on the legacy of African-American dance, and said that she specializes in “getting young children to understand how to open themselves to exploring dance and exploring life through dance.”

“Kerri’s community activism is not just about the dance, it’s about the social impact,” Hyndman tells the Eagle. “I think the way that she combines social action with dance is tremendous. ESOTA has really done a great job of doing that.”

“Reform” is a way of educating others about the type of things that happen in prison and the people inside of it, just as Edge was educated. Though she still thinks that if someone does something that merits going to prison, they should go to prison, but they should still be treated like a human being. And that’s what she is fighting for. 

Though the performance may not be able to do their stories justice, Edge says, she hopes the audience will reflect on the urgency of the issue, and that they will join the fight with her.