'step' is a riveting teenage dance film for the black lives matter movement
Amanda Lipitz's dance documentary 'STEP' shows how high school girls in Baltimore are using dance to turn their lives around.
"Step taught me that if you come together with a group of powerful women, the impact will be immense," says captivatingly assertive step captian Blessin Giraldo in Amanda Liptitz's incredible new documentary STEP. It's obvious from the film's opening shot — a Black Lives Matter street protest in the wake of Freddie Gray's murder — that the film will be about more than dancing. But its catalyst was personal rather than political. Actually, its catalyst was Blessin — the then 11-year-old pretty much instructed Amanda to start shooting the step team she founded during her first year at Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women.
Lipitz was already frequently shooting short videos of the students as as favor to her mom, who founded BLSYW with the aim of helping every student get into college. STEP was intended only as a coming-of-age time capsule for the three girls as its center: Blessin and her Lovely Ladies of BLSYW teammates, the hilariously wry Tayla Solomon and goal-driven valedictorian Cori Grainger. When STEP landed at Sundance Film Festival last year, many of the girls on the team had no idea what Sundance was. There are enough things to think about in so-called Charm City. "They come home to no lights, not having food in the refrigerator, not having a refrigerator at all," says Coach G at the beginning of the film. The girls are, however, familiar with higher education enthusiast Michelle Obama, who met with the team back in May.
Given its backdrop, you would expect STEP to be filled with some extremely tragic moments, and they hit you like an avalanche. There's Cori crying on her front porch when the electricity is cut off, Blessin breaking down when she can't find food for her six-year-old nephew, and Tayla's mom sobbing in the car because she wants her daughter to succeed so badly. The optimistic airs the girls put on just to survive makes these dark moments feel even heavier.
But the hopeful parts of the film are just as emotional. Ostensibly, the story is about the Lovely Ladies of BLSYW competing in the Bowie State step competition, but it's also about the competition of low-income kids getting into college. Updates on Blessin's constantly fluctuating GPA are so edge-of-your-seat anxiety-inducing that they might as well be your own. At one point, college counsellor Paula Doufat breaks down and pleads with a Coppin State University admissions officer to let Blessin into the program, admitting through tears, "This is so unprofessional." Amanda started shooting STEP seven years ago, but most of the film takes place in 2015, during the girls' final school year and college application process. That period coincided with the death of Freddie Gray, providing the obvious starting point of the film. The Lovely Ladies perform a routine inspired by Black Lives Matter.
At a screening in New York this week, Blessin, Tayla, and Cori took a tear-streaked audience by surprise when they walked into the theater (to a standing ovation) to take a few questions. Cori is attending Johns Hopkins, Tayla is at Alabama A&M, and Blessin is finally out of her mom's house and living on-campus at Coppin State. None of the three girls are currently in a step team, but that doesn't really seem like the point.
Text Hannah Ongley
Images courtesy of Fox Searchlight