New documentary ‘Step’ wows audiences

While this summer has seen its share of blockbuster hits celebrating women, a powerful, low-budget true story is becoming the talk of the town. “Step” is focusing on a different superhero – education.

“The greatest superpower you can have is your mind,” said filmmaker and Broadway producer Amanda Lipitz, whose new documentary expands to theaters nationwide on Aug. 18.

The Sundance Film Festival hit goes where scripted stories this summer have not: into the inner city of Baltimore. The protagonists are high school seniors at a rigorous charter school that aims to have every student accepted to college, and many are the first in their families to attend.

Their bond is step, a performance tradition that uses the body as both a percussive and expressive instrument. They call themselves the Lethal Ladies of BLSYW (Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women).

The teens come from low-income homes where covering basic needs, like food and electricity, is “incredibly challenging,” said Lipitz. Her cameras followed them into school and the gym, where the step dance team practiced.

The extracurricular activity came with strings, requiring a 2.0 GPA and daily school attendance.

As a school rule, “If you miss school, you miss step practice,” said Lipitz, who calls the strict policy a “life raft” for team members like recent graduate and team captain Blessin Giraldo, who “even at 11 knew she needed something to keep her connected to school – and that was her way of doing it.”

Lipitz filmed the teens for years, but found the strongest content came from the students’ junior and senior years, when those who had put in the work came under consideration from colleges like Johns Hopkins and Alabama A&M, and those who had not faced a probable life sentence in poverty.

Their junior year collided with the riots that followed the death of Freddie Gray, who died from a severed spine sustained while in police custody.

“I didn’t like how they tried to portray Baltimore,” said student Nush Zweh in the film. “It was like a lot of bad stuff going on, but…people [were also] cleaning up. But CNN didn’t showcase that. They only showcased us fighting and throwing everything.”

Since filming ended a year ago, the three protagonists highlighted – Giraldo, Cori Grainger and Tayla Solomon, all 19 – have remained in college. What’s more, the Baltimore school’s first graduating class of 2016 earned $800,000 in college scholarships.

The women filmed were also granted individual scholarships from film producers (Lipitz declined to specify the amount) after the film sold in a bidding war for $4 million at Sundance.

In “Step,” such determination is portrayed over 90 minutes, as the girls opt to do more than survive – they choose to stomp, study and thrive.

Their experience culminated in May, when the Lethal Ladies performed on the fly for former First Lady Michelle Obama at a college signing day event.

“They actually do a step called ‘The Michelle Obama step.’ It’s all about ‘when they go low, we go high,’ ” said Lipitz. “They did it for her and I was hysterically crying. I couldn’t believe it was actually happening. After they were done, she put her arms around all of them.”