Film & Television

Step—Lethal Ladies, Lofty Goals

Each year, high school seniors across the country face the arduous task of completing college applications and then wait while admissions teams determine their fate. Those of us who have guided a daughter or granddaughter through the process (or remember our own experience) can attest to the enormous stress entailed.

Now imagine that the stakes are prodigiously higher, that without that coveted acceptance letter you will be trapped in a life of continued uncertainty, if not poverty and violence. This is the situation for the real-life heroines of Amanda Lipitz’s immensely moving and inspirational documentary Step.

Step follows three students in their senior year at the inner-city Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (shortened to BLSYW and pronounced “bliss”). It’s 2015, and their community has been ripped apart by the death of Freddie Gray, assumedly at the hands of local law enforcement (although predictably all charges against the six officers involved were eventually dropped). Amidst this volatile environment, the girls work to become the first in their families to attend college. As hard as they toil academically, they’re also determined to end their high school careers taking their step team, the “Lethal Ladies of BLSYW,” to a championship win.

Step is a physically demanding, highly expressive form of dance, combining storytelling, marching, clapping, and military drills. It simultaneously provides the girls with discipline, sisterhood, and an outlet for frustration and rage.

Joseph Bufando of the Tufts University African Student Organization described the early history of step this way:

“Stepping has its beginnings in the early African American slave community as a means of communication and keeping hold of traditional aspects of the denied culture. It served mainly as a link back to African tribal dance, which in many areas was prohibited. Call-and-response folk songs helped the slaves to survive culturally and to spread word about important matters, such as the Underground Railroad.”

As the “Black Lives Matter” movement gains momentum around them, spurred on by incidents in Sanford, Ferguson, New York, and Waller County, as well as Baltimore, you can understand why step feels so relevant and personal to the girls. There is a fierce defiance to their routines. These young women are determined.

The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women was founded in 2009, as a public charter school. Students are accepted by lottery, “without regard for academic performance, creative talents, communication skills, or family background.” BLSYW declares that, “We are here to support and challenge every girl and to propel her to success no matter where she starts on her BLSYW journey.” These girls enter in sixth grade with the specific objective of attending college when they graduate. Both Lipitz, who is a Tony-winning Broadway producer, and her mother were involved in the school’s founding. In fact, Lipitz was working on a short film as a fundraiser for the school when she was invited to watch a step practice. She was clearly bedazzled by what she saw and the girls she met. Her project evolved over time, and earlier this year the completed film received a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival for “inspirational filmmaking.”

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