STEP: A Sisterhood of Dancers

“Step is life.”

The first class of a girls’ charter school in Baltimore has reached their senior year. A few of these 12th graders are in the school’s step dance program, led by a new coach. From the striking opening of Step, interspersing scenes of protest with frames of the girls rehearsing, the tone of the picture is set. This will be a film about these young black women and the dancing that helps them make it through their last year of high school.

With careful editing and a story structured around the goal of winning a big step competition — and then graduating with college in mind — Step follows three of the girls. Blessin, “the visionary,” founded the step team in sixth grade. Despite the difficulties she’s had in her classes, she yearns to make it into a college that gets her out of her mom’s house. “This is not it for me,” she says.

Cori, the class valedictorian, dreams of attending Johns Hopkins… but wonders how she will pay for it. And Tayla has a protective mom who wants more for her daughter (we actually hear more from Tayla’s mom than from Tayla herself). Through big events — college application day, report card release day, parent meetings — time passes and preparation for the annual step competition continues.

There are a number of authority figures involved in the lives of these girls, some more beneficial for the long term than others. Coach G is hard on her team of dancers, and also refreshingly candid with the teens. In front of a memorial to Freddie Gray, the older woman speaks frankly to her team about the difficulties they will face as black women and the low expectations they will combat in life after graduation. Her hope and belief in their capability shines through.

This debut documentary from director Amanda Lipitz offers a portrait of the true strength and dedication of these young steppers. Despite their differences, these girls form a sorority of sorts in their step team. They support each other while creating powerful performances. Their real-life drama sets the pace of Step, building up to a glorious crescendo. It’s challenging not to get pulled into their stories; I don’t know how you can make it through the doc without a tear or two.

Step opens in Austin at Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar this weekend.

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