Step | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper


An engaging documentary about a Baltimore girls step team, working for both artistic and academic success

The Lethal Ladies get to work.
The Lethal Ladies get to work.

These fraught times call for boldly underlining new films that offer a counter-narrative to our anxieties or have uplifting qualities. And thus, I heartily recommend rounding up friends and family (bring those older kids) for the feel-good high school documentary Step

The engaging film documents the travails and triumphs of a step-dance team, the Lethal Ladies, from the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, over the 2015-16 academic year. Filmmaker Amanda Lipitz has followed the team since its inception several years ago, but Step focuses on the senior year of three of its members. This is the last chance these girls have to prove something as a team (and hopefully do well at a regional step competition). And they’re committed to being accepted at colleges before year’s end.

Many of the young African-American women enrolled in BLSYW come from Baltimore’s poorer neighborhoods, and they face multiple challenges, including troubled families, financial hardship and turbulent streets. (The city is still dealing with the fall-out from the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, and the step team incorporates elements of the Black Lives Matter movement into their routines.)

Working hard and dreaming big are the film’s three stars: Blessin, the troupe’s vivacious leader, wearer of many hair-dos, and most likely to sabotage her own opportunities; Cori, a self-described introvert (“except when stepping”), who hopes to attend Johns Hopkins University; and Tayla, perpetually embarrassed by her fiercely devoted single mother, and a champion eye-roller.

The girls are lively, funny, filled with bravado — Tayla describes her dance skills as just “a notch down from Beyoncé” — and devoted to their art (“we’re making music with our bodies”). But it’s also tough going, whether dealing with family, money, academics, self-doubt or just the growing pains of adolescence. There are tears and set-backs, and you’ll fiercely root for their success. As do the supportive adults — the proverbial child-raising village — in the girls’ lives, which includes the step coach, teachers, a guidance counselor and family. (Cori explains, “My mom is like a magic wand in human form.”) And it’s a useful metaphor that for their final routine, the girls work on building a pyramid, literally supporting each other as they move upward.

A final observation: Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of inspirational documentaries and docudramas about triumphant school athletes beating the odds. And while I respect the hard work that goes into such victories, I’ve long grumbled that I wish they made feel-good docs about academic achievements. Watching Step, my eyeballs sprang a leak when the screening audience erupted with spontaneous applause … not for a particularly impressive dance move, but for an award of free college tuition. Finally, cheers for more than touchdowns.

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