Despite beginning filming before the murder of Freddie Gray, filmmaker Amanda Lipitz chose to open her documentary with scenes of Baltimore in the aftermath of his death.
Lipitz says Gray's death lit a fire under her to push "Step" forward. She adds that it was a motivating factor for the girls in her film as well, "I believe Freddie Gray's death gave the young women and their families the courage to really be honest and truthful about their lives."
The documentary 'Step' follows a step team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Girls during the senior year of that school's first graduating class. There are three teens – Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger and Tayla Solomon – at the core of the story along with their families, their step coach, Coach G and their college counselor, Paula Dofat.
The girls, Dofat, Coach G. and Amanda Lipitz came to KPCC to discuss the movie with The Frame.
Blessin Giraldo founded the step team while in sixth grade at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. In eighth grade, Giraldo approached Amanda, telling her that the next time she visited their school to bring a camera to step practice.
Blessin Giraldo: I sometimes get distracted easily, and stepping is something that helps me focus. Step taught me a lot about being confident... As a black woman, step taught me a lot about my culture and where I come from. And how to be a proud black woman.
Cori Grainger was valedictorian and considered pretty shy, but Lipitz says she comes alive as a stepper.
Cory Grainger: As a woman, stepping has taught me to be my own self-advocate. You know, people aren't always going to be able to be there to advocate for you; you have to learn how to do that for yourself.
Tayla Solomon joined the step team in the ninth grade.
Tayla Solomon: I'm an only child, so I've only had to worry about myself and I was really selfish. But stepping has taught be how to be a sister to others and be available to others to be a supporter for girls like me.
Gari McIntyre, or 'Coach G' is the team's step coach. She is a first-generation college student and the only person in her family to get a degree. Coach G also lives on the street in Baltimore where Freddie Gray was murdered. During step practice, Coach G tells The Frame that she'd make their time educational, incorporated the girls' concerns and issues like Black Lives Matter and equal pay into their discussions.
Learn some of Coach G's moves, demonstrated by Blessin, Cori, and Tayla in KPCC's Crawford Family Forum:
On why Coach G choreographed a step routine around the theme of the Black Lives Matter movement:
The Black Lives Matter theme came about because we had a step competition where you could use whatever theme you wanted. All the rest of the competitions were really centered around central themes and you had to go around that. I just wanted to change the conversation around how it became that Black Lives Matter means no other lives matter. Because that's not true. It means you have to have empathy for all people- specifically these people because they are being killed at a higher rate. And it's not right. It's not okay.
These young girls who are going to this school have so much love and support around them- I think they were kind of naive to the fact that you can go out there and just the fact that you are a black woman- someone will pay you less. Or think that you can't do what somebody else can do. So I need you to understand that you control that power. To say guess what I'm going to do it and I'm going to do it ten times better and you are going to pay me just as much as this man. So it was important to me to do that routine and show that group of people who came to the competition that we need to change the conversation and understand who would be okay with their child being murdered? No one. so we need to have empathy for everyone and their situation.
Paula Dofat is the Director of College Counseling at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. She says the biggest obstacle to getting these girls into college is getting the girls to understand they can be anything they want to be and they are not defined by their GPA. She says, "There are tons of people who didn't do well in school, in fact, Albert Einstein- he wasn't the greatest student but he was brilliant."
Dofat says that she made a vow to the girls and to God about finding each of them their right fit, in terms of college or higher learning. She says her motivations weren't just the girls but also what they could do for their communities:
Each one of those girls has a place in their community and each one of them has their piece of the puzzle for the success of Baltimore. If my part is not done, it stops their part from being done. That's another small piece of Baltimore that doesn't move forward. So, I think we all need to feel the weight of the responsibility of whatever our part is to move our communities forward.
The message of the film
When asked what audiences should take away from "Step":
Filmmaker Amanda Lipitz: Have a plan, stick to it. Whether that plan is college, great. If it's hair school, great. If it's a certificate, great. But keep going, put your shoes, zip your backpack up, and head to class.
Coach G: Two things. Step is not dance, it's an artform that stands on its own. A sporty artform, so it goes hand-in-hand with sports and arts but it is an extracurricular activity that truly stands on its own. It derives from Africa. It was brought to America through the Transatlantic slave trade and made popular through black fraternities and sororities. The next thing would be for people up there in education to understand that cutting arts and sports programs, taking away those outlets, is really detrimental to education. They are directly aligned and students really, truly do need them to keep going.
Dofat: One, I want people to stop categorizing our neighborhoods as underprivileged. We're not underprivileged, we are under-resourced. If we had the same resources, we'd be in different places. Two, I want people to feel a call to action. You cannot see this movie without know that this is a movement and if you're not doing something, you need to do something. Stop talking about what's happening or not happening if you're not going to be part of the solution. The third thing, I want educators to feel revived. Just know that myself and Coach G, we're just symbols of what they do every day. And maybe their names will never be called. But just know that everything they do is important.