By Kim Bennett
The Seattle Medium
What does it take to be the first in your family to go to college?
STEP is an inspiring documentary about an all-girl step team that offers a glimpse into how the remarkable women at a charter school in inner-city Baltimore make it happen year after year. Filled with ups and downs, triumphs and challenges, STEP tells a story of true sisterhood, perseverance and community.
The story centers around three girls – Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger, and Tayla Solomon – who are members of the step team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Women (BLYSW), as they prepare to graduate, continue on to college, and win an annual tri-state step competition held at Bowie State University
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the immediate college enrollment rate in 2015 was 69% for all high school graduates and 63% for Black graduates. It is clear that attending college is not assured for many.
BLYSW is an all-girl college preparatory charter school serving grades 6 through 12 with the mission to achieve 100% graduation and college acceptance rates. Through rigorous curriculum, dedicated staff, a college readiness and counseling program, and enrichment programs like the step team, BLYSW gets the job done.
While the accomplishments of these young women do not come easy, the film shows how the love and support of a community can inspire greatness and change lives.
“This film hits women’s education, the importance of schools and in particular charter schools, the importance of art, the importance of having mentors, the importance of a strong community, and inner city youth,” says Carole Tomko, GM and Creative Director for Seattle-based Vulcan Productions, which co-produced the film.
According to Tomko, the mission of Vulcan Productions, which was founded by Paul G. Allen and Jody Allen, is to create stories that inspire change, and STEP was a natural fit.
Film director Amanda Lipitz, known for her work as a Broadway producer on Tony-award winning musicals such as “Legally Blond”, was making fundraising shorts for the school, when she had a chance to see the step team in action, and she was moved and inspired. The executives at Vulcan were also moved and inspired to help bring this story to life.
“The core of Vulcan and, more so the core of Vulcan Productions, is to really pick and elevate projects that can drive a conversation and eventually drive change,” said Tomko. “When I saw this, I knew instantly that this film could do that.”
This multifaceted documentary focuses on education, but also touches upon a number of different themes and shot in the midst of the Freddie Gray incident in Baltimore, the Black Lives matter movement is also key part of the story of hope and resilience.
For Lipitz, a Baltimore native, the need to tell a different story about her hometown was also integral to the project.
“To watch my hometown burn on national TV and hear that Baltimore is the most dangerous city in America. It upset me,” said Lipitz. “I just felt, you know what, there is another story here and it’s a story of hope and determination and what was going on with these young women and their determination and this school.
For many who want to be the first in their families to go, it takes tireless effort and dedication, but also a support system and community to help make great things happen.
BLYSW step team coach Gari McIntyre, also known as Coach G, approaches her step program as a way to connect with the young women, teaching life schools and holding true to the motto of “Educating the whole girl.”
In the film she uses step practice as a metaphor for life. If you can make through step practice, you can make through life.
“The reason I use that metaphor, is that in life you are faced with trials and tribulations where you can just give up, where you can just fall by the wayside. And in step, it’s hard work, it’s determination, it’s teamwork, it builds character. And my form of step practice provides you with life skills,” says McIntyre.
In these moments, STEP goes beyond being a film about a step team working to become state champions. In many ways, STEP is a vehicle for the girls and the story to bring it back to those tried and true adages that we all need when faced with a challenge.
“Make it bigger than step,” said McIntyre. “Yeah, we’re moving, we’re dancing, we’re entertaining, but you are touching someone’s heart, you are telling your story through every body motion that you make.”
The power of the Coach G’s approach to step practice is apparent in the film, as we see the ladies express themselves, drive awareness of issues and build confidence in themselves each time they hit the stage.
“There is a lot you can learn from the culture of step,” said Blessin Giraldo. “It’s about team work, being leader, having ownership.”
“I find that through step, we are really able to teach people about real life,” Giraldo continues.
When I got to sit down with three young ladies from the film at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), we talked about STEP, but we also talked about the future. When asked what’s next, they all see themselves graduating from college and pursuing their next big thing and beyond, be it community involvement, traveling the world and pursuing new goals.
“I want to make sure I have an impact on people, not just from the movie,” explains Tayla Solomon. “I don’t want people to know me like, ‘Oh you’re the girl from STEP.’ I want you to know me as, ‘Oh you’re the politician or you’re the one who is behind this and behind that.”
STEP is a heartwarming documentary that not only excites with the beats and rhythms of step, but uses powerful storytelling to drive home key messages around education, importance of college and the indisputable force of hope.
According to Cori Grainger, people must continue to have faith, especially during very trying times.
“When things seem impossible, you really just have to look elsewhere,” says Grainger. “If you are not getting the support you need in one place, then you need to look to another place.”
“If you believe in a God, then you have to put your faith somewhere,” she continued. “You can’t just think that things are going to happen. You can’t expect things to happen in your favor if you don’t believe they actually can.”
Giraldo agrees and believes that their story, while inspirational, is not one that has to be unique.
“It’s not just Blessin, Cori and Tayla who are capable of doing these amazing things,” says Giraldo. “We all have the same 24 hours, we all have equal opportunity. And from me coming from not being the best student and still being able to go to college and not live in my mom’s house. There is a God. You gotta sprinkle that black girl magic over your situation.”
Lipitz could not be more proud of the young ladies, and is happy she could share their story with the world.
“In a great musical characters can’t speak anymore, they sing to express their fears, their hopes and dreams and this is what these girls were doing with step,” said Lipitz. “This was their story, they were going to be the founding class, they were going to be the first in their family to go to college and they were going to try their best to be a championship step team before they graduated.”
Step will be showing at select theaters across the country on August 4.
The film opens at Seattle International Film Festival on August 11, go to https://www.siff.net/year-round-cinema/step for details.