Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women.” MarylandGov.

August 8, 2017; New York Times

Step is a highly acclaimed (95 percent approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes) documentary film directed and produced by Amanda Lipitz. It focuses on a girls’ dance team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW), an affiliate of the Young Women’s Leadership Network. The college preparatory public charter middle and high school was founded in 2009 by Lipitz’s mother, Brenda Brown Rever. Its mission is to send every one of its low-income minority students to college.

While many artists attempt to illuminate the pain in the world, Step focuses on moments of joy, even against the backdrop of Freddie Gray’s death in April 2015 and the subsequent unrest in Baltimore. The girls of the Lethal Ladies step team are not involved with the Black Lives Matter movement, but they are affected by it. Each of the film’s stars—Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger, Tayla Solomon, Gari McIntyre, and Paula Dofat—only ask for the freedom and opportunity to live their lives free of violence and calamity and to work hard and have their effort pay off.

Step-dancing is a percussive combination of cheerleading, modern dance, clapping, and stomping, with a verbal element. “We’re making music with our bodies,” as the film’s star, Blessin Giraldo, describes it. The film is less interested in the triumphant “big game” narrative than in the individual academic success of the team’s members, the first graduating class of the academy, and the adult women who rally around them. They graduated in June 2016 amid much local fanfare.

Lipitz focused on three step team participants in particular: captain Blessin Giraldo, a step-dance prodigy who struggles at school and at home; Cori Grainger, an excellent student hoping for a scholarship to the school of her dreams; and Tayla Solomon, a straight-talker whose exuberant single mom serves as the team’s unofficial den mother.

The New York Times wrote,

Ms. Lipitz said one of her biggest lessons making “Step” had to do with understanding poverty, not race. “Poverty is having a home and going to school and having a job and a car and living on food stamps,” she said. “I don’t think people really understand that.”

Lipitz shows intergenerational relationships between women, including the team’s no-nonsense coach Gari McIntyre and devoted college counselor Paula Dofat. Lipitz gracefully reveals the lives of these women without any inkling of condescension or exploitation.

This ebullient chronicle of a Baltimore girls step team’s senior year won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Inspirational Filmmaking at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and the Audience Award for Best Feature at the 2017 AFI Docs Festival. Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures. It premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival on January 21, 2017, and opened across the country on August 4, 2017.

A Baltimore native, by 24, Lipitz had produced Broadway’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, followed by the Tony Award-winning A View from the Bridge and The Humans, a Pulitzer finalist, among others. Lipitz also created and produced the groundbreaking MTV series, Legally Blonde the Musical: The Search for Elle Woods.

Lipitz has been involved with the school (BLSYW) since its inception. She began filming the students when they were in the 6th grade in 2009. Four-hundred-plus hours of footage later, film editor Penelope Falk helped to bring the film to its successful completion. By avoiding clichés so often used to represent black American life, Lipitz and Falk created something achingly beautiful and alive about the American dream struggling valiantly to emerge from an American reality.—Jim Schaffer