In “Step,” young women find power through performing

Students at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women face challenges no young person should have to endure. The step team they created helped them prove there’s no challenge they can’t overcome.

“Step,” an acclaimed documentary out Aug. 4, takes viewers into the students’ school, where some apply for college scholarships and others pray to simply make it across the stage at high school graduation. Cameras take the audience into their homes, where sometimes family members sit around joking and singing Gospel songs and other times the power’s been cut off because there was no money for the electric bill.

And we go into the gym and onto the line, where young women seem to literally stomp their troubles away for a little while.

“At the end of the day, we need to be able to look past all the adversity,” said Cori Grainger, one of the performers, during a recent interview in Atlanta. “If you focus on the negative, that’s just what you’ll become.”

The documentary, directed by Amanda Lipitz, was honored with the Documentary Special Jury Award for Inspirational Filmmaking at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and has been showered with eager early reviews. It focuses on a handful of performers as they begin their senior year, a time of excitement and anxiety. Added to the mix are the sometimes violent protests that rocked Baltimore following Freddie Gray’s April 2015 death, and the young women wonder to each other why the national cameras spend so much more time chronicling the riots than the neighborhood volunteers who clean up afterward.

Step practice and performances give them a chance to escape the turmoil.

“Being on stage is like the big celebration,” said Blessin Giraldo. “It’s about being versatile, being a team player. You want it to sound like music to their soul.”

On the line, step coach Gari McIntyre calls the shots and takes no excuses. In the academic field, college coach Paula Dofat spurs her young charges and their families toward the finish line and beyond. In private moments, away from the students, the women talk with empathy and sometimes tears about the struggles the school’s community faces. They know there are times when there’s no food in the fridge, and maybe no electricity to keep it running. But they don’t let their love for the students stop them from keeping the pressure on. Education, they know, is the ticket up and out.

“If you want it, you’ll go get it,” performer Tayla Solomon said, reflecting on the lessons imparted through the step team and the documentary about it. “It’s OK to be selfish. It’s OK to focus on myself. No one is going to live my life for me.”

Added Grainger: “It isn’t your responsibility to save your family. Change starts with yourself. Focus on yourself, stay confident and find that little piece of hope inside of your body to achieve whatever you want to in life.”

The performers have all moved on from high school, but no spoilers here: see the movie to find out who got a full scholarship to one of the nation’s most prestigious universities and whose journey to college took a little bit of a detour. It’s not a spoiler, though, to say that by the end of “Step,” the sound of young women moving in unison sounds not just like their feet hitting the ground in unison. It sounds like their hearts beating as one.

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