Movie Review: Teens find dance team a “Step” up out of Baltimore

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“Step” is an inspiring documentary about disadvantaged inner-city kids getting their shot at college, “breaking the cycle” of poverty and a better life through a charter school and the step team that gives them discipline, confidence and focus.

It’s amazing what a tiny school — just 120 kids, single-sex to limit distractions — where one and all are committed to placing poor black girls in college, can achieve when the principal isn’t afraid to chew girls out for letting their grades slide, when the guidance counselor breaks into tears begging college admissions officers to give one of her kids a chance.

The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women is a model of what education could be like if schools were more focused on academics and preparation for life instead of the social, the athletic and the mass production of some lowest common denominator “education.”

Yeah, it robs “Step” of a measure of “inspiring” when most people’s reactions might be “Why can’t EVERY school be like this?” And the film will surprise or dazzle only the young audience it is aimed at, as adults have seen this “Follow the Team to the Big Game” formula many times before.

Filmmaker Amanda Lipitz’s biggest previous credit was as a producer on TV’s “Legally Blonde The Musical: The Search for Elle Woods.” So it’s no shock that she built her documentary about the school Step team. That’s the percussive African-American line-dancing popular in colleges and high schools — sort of “Stomp” meets cheer-leading, with a hint of Maori war chants/dancing about it.

And it’s no surprise that Lipitz gives most of her camera time to the prettiest girl on this girls-come-in-all-sizes squad. Blessin Giraldo looks like a young Nia Long, and knows it. She’s a Kardashian-admiring narcissist among the Lovely (or Lethal) Ladies of Baltimore squad — into the routines, with the commitment to performance showing in her face and every gesture she makes, every fresh style she tries with her hair.

“We’re making music with our bodies!”

She’d be a natural leader for the team, but she tends to flake out — skipping school, lost in dreams of who she might become (in front of the make-up mirror), prone to bickering with her teammates and threatening blows, like her self-described “depressed” and sometimes violent mother. She’s the only girl shown with a boyfriend, and we can see Andre is designed for nothing but holding her back.

Cori is the skinny, smart girl — hellbent on being class valedictorian, hoping for the chance to get into Johns Hopkins University.

Taylor is the girl whose mother works in corrections, makes her opinions (and moves) known at step practice, a no-nonsense single parent with job security in a world where those traits stand out.

“Step” loses track of the dancing as it gets caught up in the normal senior year struggles and anxieties of the girls, and that’s just as well. Aside from working some social relevance into one routine — “Hands up Don’t Shoot!” — in the very neighborhood where Freddie Gray, the young black man given a death-ride in the paddy wagon by local cops, lived — the choreography isn’t any more impressive than you’d expect from high schoolers.

But the film still focuses on the “Big Game,” a season-ending meet at Bowie State where we’re given a taste of what other schools that compete at this can do, and marvel how the school with the film crew following it could ever have a chance against them.

 

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“Step” is more inspiring in unexpected ways — simply showing a normal range of kids and body types, tall and short, thin and hefty, made healthy by the workout that stomping in time in Uggs delivers. And a guidance counselor this involved with her students shatters decades of stereotypes about that profession.

Just don’t be surprised if Blessin is the one to get a series deal or a Hollywood break from this exposure. Whatever else it achieves, and “Step is Life!” is the “Let’s make a movement out of this” motto of the movie, putting Blessin on a series is the one accomplishment I can see within the movie’s reach.

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Credits:Directed by Amanda Lipitz. A  release.

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