If you’ve already seen the other films starring and/or led by women this summer, this one should be the next on your list.
Most people have preconceived notions about Baltimore before they even go there, and many of the city’s artists have a mission to prove those notions wrong. The documentary film Step follows the step team from the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, an all-girls middle and high school that has the goal of getting all the students into college.
The “Lethal Ladies” have several senior students on the squad, and they’re the very first class to graduate from the school. The pressure is on: between the problems of being normal teen girls who want independence and being in a competitive dance group, they will be either the first success or failure of the school’s program. The step group also has never won a major event in Maryland, and their goal as a group is to win the biggest competition in the state. Expectations are high.
The film focuses on three steppers. The pressure might be highest for the captain of the squad, Blessin, who has struggled at times to keep up with balancing problems at home with focusing on school work. The coach of the Lethal Ladies, Gari, says that Blessin is a “visionary” artist, and that her gift is both in step and in creative choreography: It’s one thing to follow a difficult routine, and another entirely to create.
Cori aspires to be the Valedictorian and dreams of going to Johns Hopkins, whose campus is just up the street from their high school. Tayla, the liveliest of the trio, describes herself as “like, a step down from Beyoncé, because she doesn’t mess up.” So like, Michelle? All I can think of is that video with Michelle falling as Kelly and Bey glance over and keep strutting. Maybe Tayla hasn’t seen the video of Beyoncé herself falling down the stairs?
Filmed in the year following the murder of Freddie Gray and the uprising, Step shows Baltimore as a city that is down but not out. The city that was so dehumanized by racist fearmongering and marred by corruption, is alive with socially and economically conscious youth who need positive change. The Leadership School’s support made it possible for these girls to not only dream of success, but also to see that it’s within reach and that there is a support network for them outside of their families.
The Lethal Ladies aren’t all followed into their home lives the way the trio are, and that’s probably for the best. The film is focused on the three in ways that allow their personal stories to drive the narrative, but the camera doesn’t lose sight of the dancers. I can imagine that some of the tension felt between some of the young women came from the presence of the film crew. Inevitably, the film spends more time showing the bigger personalities: as performers, the dancers know how to put on a show when they really want to, and do they ever.
All of the young women have a hunger for achievement, and their families look on with both pride and anxiety: will step get in the way of their student’s school work? What happens if their grades slip? How will we be able to afford college, and is it worth it? Sitting through those conversations reminded me so much of what it felt like to have to make those sorts of decisions as a teen. If anything, Step is a time to reflect on and appreciate the strength of character that the young women develop in their time at the school. It documents the universal question: what happens next?
For me, Step was also a trip: the competition they spend the film working towards was held at my high school, on the same stage that I spent hours working and performing on a decade ago. Their graduation ceremony was held on the performance stage at my graduate school, coincidentally, the same year that I graduated. I cringed as I realized that the high school hasn’t changed a bit since I finished.
Some of the past stays the same, but the future is mutable. The dancers learn that they are the only ones who can change their own lives, because encouragement and support can only go so far if their mindset isn’t right. Their coach, teachers, and families are vital, but the discipline of dance, coupled with the success they get out of it, gives them personal motivation. The coach sees the discipline of strength-building and team-building as vital to their ultimate success.
Step is personal, and it’s beautiful. To watch them create something special, using the platform they’ve been given, sends a positive message to people experiencing hardship. For adults, it also emphasizes how just showing up matters, but it isn’t always enough, and that mentorship can be as simple as taking the time to listen.
With its smooth moves, comedic timing, and awesome stars, Step is a crowd-pleaser that will certainly inspire.