The whole point of step dancing appears to be to inspire, inform and entertain, and that’s pretty much what director Amanda Lipitz achieves in her rousing documentary “Step.” The movie recounts the efforts of the step team at a Baltimore charter school for girls to win a regional championship.
The students at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women are mostly African-Americans who face a depressing variety of challenges, many of them quite intimidating. They hail from a community that was deeply troubled by the 2015 death of Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police, which was followed by accusations that the officers used excessive force.
Gray’s death was among the events that inspired the Black Lives Matter movement, which in turn clearly influenced the efforts of the team portrayed in the movie. With roots in hip-hop, step dancing uses percussive body language and spoken words, in this case to convey anger and sorrow, to raise consciousness and demand answers about killings like that of Gray.
Stepping, like the Baltimore school itself, is all about empowerment. The idea is to provide opportunities for girls who’ve grown up amid poverty, substance abuse and violence to break out of the cycle and make a better life for themselves. Admission to the school is by lottery, and the vast majority of its students go on to college.
The movie focuses on three members of the step team, all of whom have compelling stories, though one in particular, Blessin Giraldo, will probably linger most in the viewer’s memory. She’s an enthusiastic and talented stepper, but her home life and commitment to academics are shaky, to say the least. Her single mother, a formidable and troubled figure, is far from a steadying force. Blessin is bright, but in her junior year misses 53 days of class.
The school’s mission is to show these girls another way, and they are fortunate to encounter authority figures and role models who use a combination of toughness and compassion to persuade the teens to take the high road. Particularly impressive are the team’s forceful coach, Gari McIntyre, and their tireless college counselor, Paula Dofat.
Lipitz alternates sequences of the girls’ school days and home lives, and plenty of footage of the team’s practices, all concluding in the teens’ performance at the big regional meet, on which a lot of pride — both the school’s and that of the girls and their families — is at stake.
It’s a lot to cover in 83 minutes, and you might wish for a little more depth in the girls’ backstories. Then again, the brisk pace is part of what makes the movie a crowd-pleaser — that, and knowing that the real prize the girls are working for is much bigger than a step-dancing trophy.
(At Glenwood Arts, Tivoli, Town Center.)
Rated PG for thematic elements and some language.