An uplifting documentary that’s also realistic about the obstacles its subjects face, Amanda Lipitz’s “Step” focuses on the girls in the first senior high school class of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, a charter that aims to place each of its graduates in an institution of higher learning. Some of the running-time is devoted to the effort that Principal Chevonne Hall puts into the enterprise, as well as the hard work a dedicated administrator like guidance counselor Paula Dofat expends advising students and their parents about what they need to do—both in the classroom and out—to get that diploma and move on to college-level work.
The film’s emphasis, however, is on the school’s extracurricular step dance program, to which the three young ladies most prominently featured give much of their attention. Overseen by a demanding but compassionate new coach, Gari McIntyre, the squad hopes to win a local competition that these self-styled “Lethal Ladies” failed to take in years past. But the program is also meant to instill confidence and camaraderie and encourage high performance in class as well.
The three girls chosen for the spotlight, and their parents, couldn’t be more different. Shy Cori Grainger uses dance to loosen up her natural reticence. She’s a smart, high-achieving kid whose mother Triana recently married a supportive guy. Both of them—along with her siblings—want to do all they can to ensure that Cori realizes her dream of attending Johns Hopkins, though doing so would require a scholarship.
Tayla Solomon is the only child of Maisha, an extrovert corrections officer who might be the very definition of the helicopter mom. Not only does she pore over every detail in her daughter’s report cards (regularly intervening whenever she spies a problem), but she comes to the team’s rehearsals, loudly encouraging her daughter and all the other girls. Embarrassing at times perhaps, she’s clearly a loving single mother anxious for Tayla to succeed.
Then there’s Blessin Giraldo, the team’s founder and captain. She’s certainly not shy, parading her beauty and stage skill, and wants to go to college out-of-state, preferably in New York, not just because of the opportunities for dancers there but because her home life is rife with difficulties. Her mother Geneva has had a rough life that has led to bouts of depression and rage; and though she recognizes the harm that can cause, she’s not always as capable of providing support to her daughter as she’d like. Blessin sometimes neglects her studies as a result, and her GPA slips to a grim level even as her absences escalate. One of the documentary’s main questions is whether she’ll be able to graduate, let alone find a school—with Dofat’s help—that will be willing to take her on.
“Step” follows the girls and their teammates as they prepare to compete for that just-out-of-reach tournament prize while aiming to merit a graduation robe and secure college admission. But it all plays out against the background of racial turmoil in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray while under arrest and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Lipitz doesn’t emphasize that wider social reality in an in-your-face fashion: it’s presented simply as part of what the girls have to deal with, along with everything else in their lives. (McIntyre introduces herself to the team by noting that she understands, since she lives on the very street where Gray died.)
One might wish that the film explained more about step itself—we see the girls practicing and can appreciate the energy and commitment involved, but the actual creation of the routines they perform gets short shrift. But that probably would have necessitated cutting back on the personal elements at the heart of the documentary. Shot with directness by Casey Regan and crispy edited by Penelope Falk, with a score provided by Laura Karpman and Raphael Saadiq, “Step” offers a telling glimpse of one of those local triumphs that make you feel good even as you realize how much more work there is to be done.