In ‘Step,’ Finding a Language for Hopes, Fears and Dreams

“It was a musical,” she said. “The music is their claps and their stomps, and the lyrics are the words, and the book is who they are. When they can’t speak about who they are in their everyday lives, they step. In a musical, you express your hopes and your fears and your dreams through song.”


Ms. Lipitz, left, the director of “Step,” with Cori Grainger, part of the step team (and valedictorian) at Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women.

William Gray/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

In “Step,” Ms. Lipitz’s documentary feature, she follows the school’s 19-member team, the Lethal Ladies, during their senior year. The girls prepare for a competition — and for the rest of their lives. Will they get into college? And if they do, will they be able to afford it? All the while, step is their release, their lifeline.

“I believe you see who they really are when they step,” Ms. Lipitz said.

And in the case of the Bob Fosse-obsessed Ms. Giraldo, who has never taken a formal dance class, you see what natural talent looks like. For her, step was always easy. “You don’t have to rely on the beat,” she said in an interview. “You are the beat. You create the beat. So whatever you want it to be, whatever direction you want it to go in, you can put it in that direction. It’s creativity.”

“Step” — a hit at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the special jury award for inspirational filmmaking — also shows the girls’ sometimes difficult home lives. Ms. Giraldo struggles with keeping her grades up at school and not having enough to eat at home. The focus is also on two other Lethal Ladies: Cori Grainger, her class’s quiet valedictorian; and Tayla Solomon, who is as dry as her mother, a corrections officer, is exuberant. “I’m, like, a notch down from Beyoncé,” Ms. Solomon says in the film, “because I do still mess up.”

As we get to known the girls and their families, Ms. Lipitz upends stereotypes — about Baltimore, single mothers and young black girls in urban communities. Little is sentimental or sugarcoated; Ms. Lipitz is interested in nuance. “You have the corrections officer who tells you that as a black woman in Baltimore, the police were her biggest heroes,” she said. “When I saw an opportunity to turn something on its head I did.”

Ms. Lipitz said one of her biggest lessons…

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