Film & Television

Step—Lethal Ladies, Lofty Goals

Lipitz owes much to all her leading ladies: the girls, their mothers, and the dedicated staff at BLSYW.

Tayla, who has made an art form of the teen habit of rolling her eyes, is the only child of Maisha, a corrections officer. An unlikely “helicopter mom,” Maisha attends step practice as de facto assistant coach, mascot, and cheerleader. When Tayla’s grades drop, Maisha is quick to assume it’s because of a budding romance and warns her daughter that, “Boys have cooties.” Tayla, who compares herself to Beyoncé (“except I still mess up”), groans. “I tell her to chill out,” she confides. “She embarrasses me.”

Cori is one of seven children in a blended family. She is on track to be class valedictorian and has her eye set on Johns Hopkins. Her mother Triana and her stepfather, who has recently lost his job, promise to make it happen. But, Cori is well aware of their situation. In one scene, their power’s been cut off. But, Cori’s been there before. She calls her mother, who became pregnant with Cori while in high school herself, a “magic wand.” “We were homeless once,” Cori remembers, “But, none of us knew it.”

The third spotlighted student is Blessin, a stunning young woman whose infectious personality is matched by her impressive talent for hair and makeup. She founded the step team in sixth grade and is a charismatic, if unpredictable, leader. “Step is life!” she declares. “We’re making music with our bodies. That’s sick stuff.” In their junior year, Blessin missed more than 50 days of school and had to quit step because of her low grades. The team suffered without her. Now, as a senior she has something to prove. More importantly, she needs to pull herself up if she’s going to successfully apply to college. She is desperate to go away to school. Her single mother Geneva suffers from depression, anger disorder and agoraphobia, and under her bravado, Blessin fears that she’ll share that future.

Supporting these three students and their peers is a remarkable network of educators, counselors and coaches. If the girls are brave and strong (they are), these women are even braver and stronger. BLSYW’s principal Chevon Hall demands the best from each girl; she is forthright with Blessin, accusing her of giving her all to step but not to her classwork. Step coach Gari McIntyre, “Coach G,” is a strict drill sergeant, working tirelessly and inspiring the team with her own background and a field trip to Freddie Gray’s neighborhood memorial. “It could have been us,” she tells them. And guidance counselor Paula Dofat is relentless in her advocacy driving the girls to reach their higher educational goals. When it looks doubtful that Blessin will make it, Dofat breaks down. “This is so unprofessional,” she apologizes through tears. The girls are truly blessed to have these women on their side.

Of course, all of these scenes are interspersed with dynamic step routines, brilliantly edited by Arielle Davis and Penelope Falk. Training montages are cut to Fifth Harmony’s rhythmic crossover “Worth It.” In their new team jackets, the girls strut down the hallway in slow motion before championships. If this were just a film about dance, it would hold its own. But every time the team experiences a triumph, in the gym or onstage, their win is more meaningful because we’ve gotten to know them so well.

As you watch Step, you may be reminded of familiar popular fare, from Stomp the Yard to Glee, from Bring it On to Pitch Perfect. But, these aren’t actors and their happy ending is by no means guaranteed. In fact, for some it’s a very long shot indeed. No matter how much Blessin resembles a celebrity, she’s a real girl, in serious danger of slipping through the cracks.

Step was clearly a passion project for Lipitz and her crew, and its easy to embrace their enthusiasm. The film, which runs just under an hour and a half, is thoroughly engaging and entertaining. Like the judges at Sundance, you’ll be inspired either to take charge of your own future, or — hopefully — to find ways to support organizations like BLSYW in your community.

As the Lethal Ladies know in their hearts and demonstrate through their dance, “If you come together with a group of powerful women, the impact will be immense.”

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