A small movie, ‘Step,’ is a big leap for the women in it

When the Lethal Ladies of BLSYW perform, the first thing one notices is the thunder.

The sound comes when boots hit the floor, in unison and in rhythm, as the members of the high-school step team from the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women perform intricate and powerful routines. The power of their feet landing is matched by their hand claps, forming complex and precise percussion with every move.

But before these women get a chance to show off their stuff in their step routines, they have to prove themselves in the classroom.

“We all have the mindset that you have to be curricular before you can be extracurricular,” said Gari McIntyre, who coaches the Lethal Ladies, the pride of BLSYW, a charter school founded in 2009 to give young women in Baltimore’s inner city a chance to go to college and the tools to succeed there.

The story of the Lethal Ladies of BLSYW is told in “Step,” a documentary that debuted to universal acclaim at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it was acquired by Fox Searchlight Pictures. The movie is being released gradually around the country and returns to Utah theaters this Friday.

The Baltimore Leadership School was founded in 2009 with a class of sixth-grade girls. That’s also when Amanda Lipitz, a Baltimore native living in New York, met the girls.

(  |  courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures) Gari McIntyre, a k a "Coach G," and the Lethal Ladies of BLYSW, a Baltimore school's step team, profiled in the documentary "Step."

“I was completely blown away by this group of young women and found them enchanting,” Lipitz said in a phone interview. The school stayed on her radar while she worked her main job as a Broadway producer. (Among her credits are “Legally Blonde: The Musical” and the Tony-winning 2015 revival of Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge.”)

Lipitz, who on the side was making short films about education, started hearing about the step team and learned how step — which has a rich history, coming from Africa — was becoming a collegiate sport, particularly at fraternities at black colleges.

“Blessin [Giraldo, one of the students who founded the team,] said, ‘The next time you come with cameras, you have to film the step team,’ ” she said. “I walked in and they were stepping, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is what happens in a great musical.’ In a great musical, characters can’t speak anywhere, so they sing to express their fears and their hopes and their dreams. And that was what these young women were doing with step.”

She filmed a short documentary on the step team, then started meeting with the students’ parents for interviews and to secure their permission to film the girls.

“Then Freddie Gray was killed, and I watched my hometown burn on television, and I said I’ve got to do this,” said Lipitz. (Gray, a 25-year-old Baltimore man, died in 2015 while in police custody — a case that led to protests, and violence, in the streets.)

The movie follows the BLSYW girls through the 2015-16 school year, their senior year. It introduces audiences to the 19 girls on the Lethal Ladies squad, focusing particular attention on a few of them: Giraldo, who struggles with failing attendance and grades; Cori Granger, whose dreams of attending Johns Hopkins University are tied to earning a scholarship; and Tayla Solomon, who is regularly mortified by her mother, who attends every practice.

(  | courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures) Paula Dofat (left), counselor at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, talks with student Blessin Giraldo, in a moment from the documentary "Step."

Lipitz also focuses on the faculty and staff who drive these young women to succeed, particularly Paula Dofat, the school counselor who seems to know every student’s academic records by heart, and McIntyre, known as Coach G, who encourages the girls to perform and instills the discipline necessary to compete against step teams around Maryland.

“The education is first,” McIntyre said in a recent phone interview. But extracurricular work, like the step team, is also important. “My program of stepping is to build discipline, to build sisterhood, to build self-esteem, to build solidarity, so that they are able to use those skills outside of step practice — in the classroom, in the workplace, on the streets, outside of the state, outside of the country.”

That solidarity was crucial during filming, Lipitz said.

The challenge was “making sure all the young women on the team felt a part of this process, that we were all in this together, making sure that this sisterhood, the integrity, was always there,” Lipitz said. “Putting their needs and well-being ahead of the film was my north star. When I was in the editing room, if I asked myself the question ‘What’s best for the girls?’, I always got the right answer.”

That togetherness extended to the movie’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. McIntyre said Lipitz insisted all 19 step-team members attend, along with Dofat, McIntyre, other school officials, and some parents as chaperones. (They got some help from some Utah supporters; Geralyn White Dreyfous, founding director of the Utah Film Center, is one of the film’s executive producers, and the center is one of the film’s fiscal sponsors.)

“There were many girls who had never been on a plane before,” Dofat said. “I had never been that close to mountains of that magnitude. I was in awe, and I know a lot of the girls were.”

The movie had its premiere at Sundance and won a special jury prize for “inspirational filmmaking.”

Rick Egan  |  The Salt Lake Tribune
Amanda Lipitz accepts the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Inspirational Filmmaking for her film "Step" at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

“The thing that filled my heart with joy was when I heard these audiences so vocal — cheering, laughing, crying, hooting and applause in the middle of a documentary,” Lipitz said. “It played like a musical. That filled my heart, and I was so excited about that.”

The girls, McIntyre said, “were recognized on the street as celebrities. People would stop them, ‘Are you with the “Step” movie? Can I get a picture?’ Or they told us how inspired they were by their stories.” When the team met singer John Legend, McIntyre said, “He was so humble. He was so great with the girls. He treated them like celebrities. He said, ‘Can I get your autograph?’ ”

Back in Baltimore after Sundance, the school’s work goes on.

Dofat said most of the class of 2016, except for “a couple of students who opted for alternative plans,” got into college, and all of this year’s class plans to enroll — and 10 percent of them got full-ride scholarships. BLSYW has an alumni support coordinator, Dofat said, “who follows every girl onto their campus, literally.” The girls also get care packages, so “they don’t have to worry about any toiletries for the entire semester.”

Meanwhile, Lipitz is still dividing her career between Broadway and documentaries. She may get a chance to combine those passions: When Fox Searchlight bought “Step” at Sundance, it also bought the remake rights.

“I’d love to make a feature,” Lipitz said. “A movie musical would be a dream come true.”

Again, her focus is on the girls. “There’s still a long road to go for them,” she said. “It’s not all about them being a role model, an inspiration, a documentary star. It’s about them achieving their dreams in their daily lives.”

It’s too soon, Dofat said, to see what the success of “Step,” the movie, may do for the school, but McIntyre has noticed one change already: more students applying to join the step team.

“I have to step up my game as far as the requirements to join the team, and the boot camp to stay on the team,” McIntyre said. “If you can make it all those things, I don’t cut anyone. If you meet the GPA requirement, and you can make it through the boot camp, you are a member of the Lethal Ladies team. But it takes a lot of effort and a lot of discipline to make it through.”

from The Salt Lake Tribune http://www.sltrib.com/artsliving/movies/2017/08/13/a-small-movie-step-is-a-big-leap-for-the-women-in-it

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