Fifteen years ago, HBO’s The Wire gave the world an intimate look at the darkest parts of Baltimore, Maryland. In the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death in police captivity two years ago, the news delivered brutal images of rioting across the city. But there’s more to Baltimore than violence and professional sports, and thanks to the new documentary Step by Amanda Livitz, Baltimore’s big-dreaming kids, loving parents, and dedicated teachers get their chance to shine. Step is currently on limited release in theaters.
The pulsing, seething staccato of their performances make you want to stomp along, but Step isn’t really about dance. It’s about the community coming together.
It is fall of 2015, just months after Freddie Gray’s death, and at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW), the girls of the step team are feeling galvanized to be a force for hope. This public charter school was founded in 2009 with the goal that every student will graduate and go on to attend college. The first seniors will graduate this year (2015 in the show), and the pressure to fulfil the second part of that mandate—college—is on.
Three of those seniors are also on the step team. Blessin Giraldo founded the school’s step team as a sixth grader, the same year the school opened. She is one of the team’s leaders, a natural talent who choreographs and inspires many of the team’s performances. Step is a form of performance art—part dance, part chant, part a cappella percussion that has its roots in African dance. As Blessin explains, “We’re making music with our bodies,” and for her, it doesn’t get any cooler than that.
Cori Grainger is on track to be her class valedictorian. She dreams of attending Johns Hopkins University, and describes her mother—who gave birth to her when she was fifteen—as a magic wand in human form: “We were homeless for a while, and I didn’t even know it.” Her mother and her stepfather support her dreams, but Cory feels extra pressure to earn a full ride to college. She’s one of seven kids in her family, living paycheck to paycheck, and she knows her parents can’t afford tuition.
The last storyline features Tayla Soloman, the only child of her single mother. Her mom is a night-shift corrections officer and attends so many step practices she’s an honorary member of the team. Theirs is a push-pull relationship, and with the stakes so high, it’s easy to empathize with Tayla’s mom for pressuring her only chick to aim high and avoid temptation.
It’s refreshing to see a movie with so many women in the driver’s seats. The students are female, the principal is female, the coach is female, and the guidance counselor (who could give guidance counselors the world over a clinic in truly being a force for good in students’ lives) is female. With the exception of Cori’s stepfather, and Blessin’s six-year-old nephew, the families in the documentary are female—for better or worse.
The girls at the heart of Step are silly, stubborn, smart, impassioned. They are every senior who has ever struggled through the college application process, stared down the face of those unimaginable tuition fees, and felt guilty for asking parents to help with the burden. The girls of the BLSYW do this while taking on challenges many of us never face: the electricity being turned off, going without food, unreliable support at home.
The pulsing, seething staccato of their performances make you want to stomp along, but Step isn’t really about dance. It’s about the community coming together to steer these girls past the quicksand of their surroundings. It’s about students persisting, harnessing the gifts they’ve been given to take one giant leap toward achieving their dreams.
Step opened August 4 on limited release in theaters. Rated PG for thematic elements and some language.
See the trailer for Step here.
All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.