Step Inside Amanda Lipitz’s Dynamic Dance Documentary

When Tony award-winning director Amanda Lipitz finished filming the students at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, she had over 400 hours worth of footage. She’s been following Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger, and Tayla Solomon since they were 11 years old up through their senior year of high school. She had to whittle all that time—the laughs, the tears, the thrills—down to 83 minutes. The result is one of the most captivating, intimate, inspiring, and enjoyable documentaries of the year.

Step is a coming-of-age film that follows the Lethal Ladies step team both on the stage and on the school grounds. The act of stepping, a dance form which has its roots in the African-American community, is a major part of the students’ growth, but it almost serves as background music to the issues they face in their community (the film takes place in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death), classrooms (the goal of the all-female charter school is for every girl to be accepted to college), and homes. You’ll cry; a chorus of sniffles could be heard during the end credits of my screening. But for every moment of breakdown, there’s a counter moment of laughter and love. 

Giraldo, Grainger, and Solomon may have the spotlight on them throughout the film, but the strong, supportive women beside them—their guidance counselor Paula Dofat, step coach Gari McIntyre, their mothers, even Lipitz—are the ones making sure that the light shines as brightly and as fiercely as it can. 

Ahead, we speak with Lipitz about whether it's possible to remove yourself emotionally from a project like this, directing a film about the black experience as a white woman, and the music selection process. 

This is a very emotional film. As a director, and as someone ultimately doing a job, how do you remove yourself from a film like this?

I don't. You can't. What I did know is [these girls] had this incredible support system at the school—with Coach G and Paula—so I wouldn't need to do anything because they were doing the real work. I was just filming it. They had this whole safety net under them that I didn't need to really worry because they were going to be okay. I'm a very empathetic person, and I'm a mother; I have two daughters. I've known these young women since they were 11 years old, and we really did make the film together. I put their social and emotional well-being ahead of the documentary at every moment, at every turn, no matter what. They knew that, and their families knew that. They were more important to me than the film.

How did you decide which girls to highlight from the team? 

I always knew Blessin would be kind of my tree trunk, because she founded the step team, and she had been the captain, and she had asked me to come film them. So, she was the one that was kind of pushing the project. She had linked her arm with me when she was 11 years old and said, "You're a Broadway producer? I'm going to be on Broadway." We had a connection. I was kind of always perplexed by her incredible vision, leadership, and hard work on the step team, and that that did not translate to her academics. So that was something that I thought I sort of needed to follow. 

Cori was always number one in the class. When I walked in and saw her stepping, I was in shock. I could not believe the difference and what a fierce stepper she was and everything I saw come out of her when she stepped. Tayla didn't join until ninth grade, but she came in and was stepping like she had been stepping her whole life. Her mom was standing on the sidelines in her bulletproof vest… Really, I put every opportunity I could in this movie to turn any stereotype on its head. So Cori, the product of a teenage mother in Baltimore City, isn't what you think she is, she's going to be valedictorian and get a full ride to Johns Hopkins. Her mom is incredible and might not have all the resources in the world, but uses what she has and gives a lot of love, and is turning out these incredible children. Maisha is a black woman in Baltimore who is a corrections officer and, growing up, the cops were her biggest heroes. 

I had a lot of other girls I followed. Obviously, some opened up more than others. But I will definitely give credit to Penelope Falk, my editor; when we got into the edit room, we started to figure it out. It was very clear, the three of them really had stories that had beginnings, middles, and ends, and they were all so different. Their mothers were so different. But we worked very, very hard to make the viewers feel that they'd seen the film about a team, and even if you don't know every single girl's name, you feel you know them. Because it is a film about a team. It is a film about girls coming together and women coming together.

The mothers in the film are very protective. Were they hesitant at all to allow you access into their daughters' lives, them being so young and all? 

I'm sure there was certainly pause for concern, but they had seen my shorts that I made about their school, about schools around the country. They knew the tone of my storytelling. They knew me. They saw me have babies. They knew my mom. I was a part of the community, and they knew that my heart was in the right place and that I really wanted to tell a story that changed the conversation about Baltimore, and so did they. When Freddie Gray died, even though it was this horrific tragedy, it in some ways gave all of us the strength and the courage and the conviction to keep going and really get the story out there.

Freddie Gray's death is what prompted you to press fast-forward on filming. Outside of the protests in the beginning and the coach bringing the girls to his memorial, the impact his murder had on the community isn't touched on much in the film. Talk to me about that decision.

It's not a political film, I'm not trying to make a political statement. I'm giving you a snapshot of 17-year-old girls in their senior year. They happened to be in Baltimore, and it happened to be in the wake of Freddie Gray's death. This was how it affected their lives, this is how it impacted them. They live in these neighborhoods and, as you can see, they easily go from talking about Kim Kardashian to Malcolm X in one fell swoop. It was more about them and their lives and showing who they were than it was about really digging into Freddie Gray's death and what happened in the aftermath and the effects of that. It was more how it affected them, specifically. 

For me, Coach G really represents that and brought that to the table. When you see them do their Black Lives Matter routine and you see these beautiful, brave, smart, confident, well-spoken women stand up and say, "It could have been us," I think it affects people in a very different way, in a way that I think it hasn't before. I think there are rampant misunderstandings about the Black Lives Matter movement, and when you see those girls stand up and say, "It could have been us," you actually realize, wait, oh my god, it could have been those girls. And this is unacceptable. I try to do things in a much more subconscious way instead of hitting people over the head with some very big statements about race relations and police brutality and instead just show what it means to them.

You live in Baltimore, and your mother is the founder of the school, so you have a personal connection, yet the topics you're exploring are very specific to the black experience. As a white woman, did you hesitate at all taking on this project?

Not for a minute. I was making short films in New York about girls' schools in New York, the Young Women's Leadership Schools. My mom had been an activist my whole life for women and girls. The domestic violence hotline was run around my dining room table. That's the house I grew up in. For me to suggest to my mom, "Hey, you should look at these schools, I think you could replicate it in Baltimore," it was not unusual. For her to fall in love with the schools the way I had fallen in love with them, then replicate it in Baltimore was incredible. 

I've gone in and out of five dozen schools in my career. So, to go into a school filled with maybe not as many white people as other schools was not unusual for me. I went into their school five or six times a year with cameras, and I went into their school a lot of times without cameras because they were just a part of my life and I was a part of the community. I didn't even know about the step team until the eighth grade. Then it was kind of this slow ramp-up to actually filming and then obviously diving in senior year. I've never felt that way. It wasn't an issue for me, it wasn't an issue for them. If you ask them, they'll joke; they'll say funny things like, "Wait, you're white?" It wasn't an issue for us because we were all Baltimore girls, and we were trying to change the conversation about Baltimore, and that was the thing that unified us.

The music in the movie seems very thought-out. The scene that stands out to me the most is when the girls are walking down the hallway with a slow-motion effect in their uniforms while Tate Kobang’s “Bank Rolls Remix” plays in the background. What was that song selection process like for the film? 

I'm a Broadway producer, so music fuels me. I read somewhere that Quentin Tarantino actually chooses his soundtrack of his movies before he sits down to write them, and I feel a little bit of a kinship with that because I had a playlist that I listened to when I was making this movie. Some of it's in this movie, some of it's not in the movie. That song, the girls were playing from the beginning of senior year, and I was obsessed with it. I was like, this is the best song. I loved it, and I incorporated it into my daily drives back and forth from Baltimore to New York. I had this vision in my head. I was like, you know, we've seen Reservoir Dogs, we've seen The Hangover, we've seen the white guys walking in slow motion. They're powerful, and they're going to go crush the world. I just wanted to flip it on its head, and I wanted to use this rap, hip-hop Baltimore anthem to do that. It's the only part of the movie that's staged, and I just had a dream that that was what it was going to look like, and I'm so grateful it turned out, and I'm grateful the girls went with it. But it is definitely a dream realized, that moment.

I read somewhere that you worked with Raphael Saadiq on the music?

Raphael Saadiq and Laura Karpman composed the film. They're incredible. Raphael and Laura wrote the final song, "Jump," which I think is literally the most beautiful song I've ever heard. It was written specifically for the film and is inspired by the young women and their moms and their teachers.

Step is playing in theaters now.