“What I really love about the show,” I say before quickly correcting myself, “I mean, the film, is the energy and spirit.”
Amanda Lipitz, the director of the new film Step, which profiles a group of dancers from the first graduating class of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW), doesn’t seem the least bit deterred by this word choice. “It’s definitely a musical documentary,” the Baltimore-born and bred Lipitz agrees. “Some people describe the doc like a show and it definitely plays like a show with the clapping and the cheering. I learned so much from being a Broadway producer for many years and not directing on stage.” As proof of the film’s rousing spirit, Step’s honours include a special jury award for inspirational filmmaker from Sundance and the Docs for Schools Students’ Choice award at Hot Docs. (Read the Hot Docs review of Step here.)
Step marks Lipitz’s feature directorial debut after a series of successes on Broadway as a producer. Among her Broadway credits are Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which she made at the young age of 24, the smash hit Legally Blonde, and the Tony Award-winners The Humans and A View from the Bridge. What one learns in theatre translates to the screen, however, as Lipitz quickly notes the experiences that readied her for the job, like storytelling and casting.
“I did a reality series on MTV where we searched for the next Elle Woods when I was producing Legally Blonde,” Lipitz adds, “and that taught me a lot about shooting and editing dance, camera angles, sound.”
Lipitz’s career in theatre and film has roots in fundraising and philanthropy, like raising $25,000 with a friend in their junior year of college for their start-up The Stained Glass Project, a non-profit that distributes an inspirational book of the same name to hospitals. This work marks the first-stepping stone in Step’s journey to the screen and introduced Lipitz to the girls at BLSYW.
“In my other life and on the side of my Broadway-producing career,” Lipitz says, “I was directing and producing shorts about girls’ education and first generation students going to college. I became involved with a group of schools in New York called the Young Women’s Leadership Schools—they’re five public schools in New York, 100% graduation rate, and I was blown away by them.”
The director recalls discussing these schools with her mother, Brenda Brown Rever, an activist and philanthropist, and considering what they could do to help improve the lives of young people in Baltimore. “I suggested she look at these schools as a model,” Lipitz continues. “She did, and my mother was the force behind the founding of the school [BLSYW] and she recruited her daughter to make films for her.”
The director recalls meeting her future subjects when they were only eleven years old and in the sixth grade. Look closely at an early video to spot Blessin Giraldo, the founder of the step team. Giraldo is one of Step’s three central subjects along with Cori Grainger, straight-A student and Valedictorian; and Tayla Solomon, an energetic force whose mother is the team’s unofficial assistant coach and mascot.
Cut to two years later and Lipitz has her first encounter with step. “Blessin was visiting me in New York and I was filming her and another young woman, Naysa [who also appears in the film], as they were interviewing Sherrilyn Ifill at the ACLU,” Lipitz says. “They were stepping and I was not familiar with step. I wasn’t aware of the rich history of it coming from Africa and starting in the mines. In America, it’s a collegiate sport. It’s something you learn by going to college and being a part of an African American fraternity or sorority.”
Blessin, taking notice of Lipitz’s interest, pitched the producer. Lipitiz recalls going in for the shoot and seeing all the girls in formation ready to follow Blessin’s lead. Cue a light bulb. “This is what happens in a great musical,” Lipitz reminisces. “In a great musical, characters can’t speak any more so they sing to express their fears, hopes, dreams, and that’s what these young women were doing with step.”
Step extends the stories of these three girls to those of their teammates, their community, and young Black women across the USA. Like a great Broadway production, Step uses the dance routines to channel the political backdrop as the girls pause amidst the clapping and stomping to cry “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” in unison.
The film finds a poignant underdog narrative by situating the success of the step team within the Black Lives Matter movement that encourages the girls to find their voices. “We were already filming when Freddie Gray was killed,” Lipitz notes, contextualising the production within the violence that erupted in Baltimore when the 25-year-old Gray was killed in police custody. “That certainly kicked the film into high gear and inspired us to change the conversation the world was having in Baltimore.” Step features a powerful scene in which Gari McIntyre, a.k.a. Coach G, the step coach and mentor for the girls, takes the team to visit Gray’s memorial at the intersection where he was gunned down, which happens to be on the same street she calls home.
The film acknowledges the violence and challenges that the young women of BLSYW face daily, but it emphasises on the elements of community that create a better future for the girls. Lipitz puts the film in perspective by relating it to her experience growing up in Baltimore County and the way people perceived the urban core. “When I was growing up, going downtown was a big deal,” Lipitz says. “Now, Baltimore City is not like that. It’s an incredibly vibrant place. Even the neighbourhoods that are considered the “bad” neighbourhoods, like the street where Freddie Gray was killed and where Coach G lives, I don’t feel unsafe there. I’ve seen the community come together even the ones you might think or see as dangerous.”
At the core of the film is the value of parenting and mentorship. The director, who has two daughters aged three and seven, says she learned a lot about raising teenagers by seeing Blessin, Cori, Tayla, and the other girls grow up during the course of their education.
“One of the biggest things that I took away from this experience is that you shouldn’t judge other parents,” notes Lipitz. The film illustrates the challenges that each mother faces while raising the girls, like Blessin’s mother, who struggles with depression, or Cori’s mom, who readies her daughter for John Hopkins while the family lives paycheck to paycheck. Step captures the emotional journey of the mothers as they watch their daughters grow and ready for college. “It’s really important, especially in a school environment, to not judge the situation if a parent is not there every day,” Lipitz observes. “If you’re someone who hasn’t experienced college and you’re trying to get your child into college, it’s such a leap of faith. You have to be very brave and open and trusting, and all these mothers are.”
Step illustrates the confidence that the girls receive from their parents’ support, as well as their interest in their passion for stepping. “I had very supportive parents,” Lipitz adds, “but nobody asked me if I wanted to be a producer or a director. They put me in dance lessons and singing classes. I acted. I didn’t realise there were other ways to fulfill myself creatively. I always tell young women that there are so many different things that they can do.”
It’s an important lesson as the film opens in the midst of a growing demand for better representation for women both behind the camera and in front of it. Lipitz cites Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman and the films by Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13th) as exciting works that are part of a greater movement for women behind the camera. “Broadway is also a little bit behind when it comes to female directors, writers, and producers,” admits Lipitz, “although I know a lot of very powerful female producers, writers, and directors on Broadway. Everyone is catching up and I’m certainly excited to be a part of that, especially since this film is all about women.”
As a producer, Lipitz talks about the art and business of documentary with the same comfort. “Obviously, raising money was another form of experience because when you’re a documentarian, you have to raise money for your project and I do that all the time on Broadway.”
While making documentaries in the States differs from Canada at the funding level, both independent communities share the challenges that require filmmakers to think creatively and strategically. “The great part of documentary that Broadway doesn’t have is that, because it has such a social message, you can have a 501( c )( 3 ) option,” explains Lipitz, “which means you can get grants and tax-deductible donations to make a documentary. You can’t do that on Broadway. Nobody’s getting a tax write-off there unless they lose all their money. It makes it a little easier, but we were still pounding the pavement since we didn’t have a big studio behind us or somebody commissioning it. This was all us.”
As Lipitz reflects on the girls’ growth and journey through their time together, she relates the experience back to her Broadway life. “More than anything,” Lipitz adds, “producing taught me not to take things personally. When people gave me feedback and notes on the cuts when I was in the process of editing, I had previously been the one giving notes to someone creatively, so it taught me about not taking it personally and learning and growing from it.” On the stage and outside the schools, the girls learn the same process.
Step opens in theatres August 11.