Do yourself a favor and go see “Step
” this weekend. It’s impossible to watch without wanting to dance in your seat. Directed by Amanda Lipitz
, the inspiring doc follows three senior girls — Blessin Giraldo
, Cori Grainger
, and Tayla Solomon
— and the rest of their dance team as they make their way through the overwhelming, complicated, and emotional college application process. Founded by Lipitz’s mother, Brenda Brown Rever, The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women opened in 2009 with the goal of sending every one of its students to college.
Lipitz took home the Special Jury Award for Inspirational Filmmaking at Sundance, where the film made its world premiere. We talked to the director about making the transition from working in Broadway to filmmaking, how her relationship with the girls evolved, and “Step
’s” message of perseverance.
” hits theaters August 4. You can find tickets on the film’s website.
This interview has been edited. It was transcribed by Lyra Hale.
W&H: How was the premiere last night?
Al: It was absolutely amazing. Doing it in Baltimore, especially, because it’s my hometown and the girls’ hometown and the school’s hometown. There wasn’t any better place to have it premiere than Baltimore.
” is your first feature-length documentary, so talk a little bit about how you got involved with these girls and why you wanted to tell this story.
Al: So, I’m a Broadway producer in my other life. And on the side of making musicals and plays, I started making shorts about first-generation students going to college and girls’ education.
I got really involved with Ann Tisch and the Young Women’s Leadership schools in New York and was just kind of totally blown away by what they do there and the special class that they have and graduating 100 percent [of their students]. I just loved every time, whether it was a boy or a girl, seeing the story of what it means to be the first in your family to go to college. And I was always blown away by what a family goes through to try to be the first.
Every time one of my shorts was shown people would say, “You should make a documentary.” And the Broadway producer in me was like, “We’ve seen a lot of documentaries about first generations going to college. What is going to elevate this? What is going to take this to the next level? What is going to make this different?”
My mother and I were both born and raised in Baltimore, and my mom has been an activist, educator, and working for women and girls my whole life. I’ve watched her do that. And I suggested to her that she might want to look at some of these schools in New York as something to replicate in Baltimore. And she did.
She would work behind the scenes at the schools and she recruited her daughter to make films for her. So I met these young women when they were 11 years old. And Blessin came running up to me and was like, “You’re a Broadway producer. I’m gonna be on Broadway!” And I just fell in love with these girls. They watched me have babies and grow up and I watched them turn into women and grow up.
We became very close over the years. They watched me come in and out of their school five or six times a year with a camera, and a lot of the times I came to the school without the camera because I was there to support the community.
In eighth grade Blessin and another young woman named Mazo were actually visiting in New York … and I was filming them and Blessin said to me, “You know, the next time you come to school with cameras you really need to come film the step team. You will love the step team.” So I was not familiar with step. I didn’t know about the rich history of it coming from Africa and it being a collegiate sport and something that you earned by going to college and when I found that out I was really kind of blown away.
I was like, “Whoa, these little sixth grade girls, at 11 years old, were determined to go to college so much so that they went to this groundbreaking school that nobody knew about, that was in its first year, and they started a step team.” And I thought, “What a subconscious way to keep themselves connected to school.” And so I planned it all out in the ninth grade. I walked into their step practice and Blessin had everybody lined up, ready to go.
They started stepping and for me it was what happens in a great musical. They were just totally expressing themselves, all their fears, all their hopes, through step, like how in musical it’s expressed through song and dance. I was really so blown away. Even in that first moment I thought, “Oh my God, this is a documentary. This is a reason to tell a story longer than seven minutes.” Also, because they were the founding class of the school, and also because I didn’t like the way that Baltimore was portrayed out in the world because I knew what was going on in the school with these young women, teachers, coaches, and mothers. And I was like, this is a story to tell, so in the ninth grade I just filmed them a lot, the stepping.
I learned how to film them. I tried a lot of different locations to try to learn how to film it, because it’s complicated to film.
In the 10th grade I met with all the families. I asked them if they would be willing to do something like this and they all agreed. And then I just started conducting interviews with the girls where I would just sit and talk to them about what step meant to them and about their families, kind of delving a little bit deeper and getting to know why it mattered.
And then in the 11th grade I filmed about 20 days. Blessin missed 53 days of school and was kicked off the step team.I watched these young women pull her back in. I watched the school use step to pull her back in. I watched Maisha [Graves], in her bulletproof vest, scream it all out that they were family and families stick together. And I was like, “Okay this is so incredible,” and I started to cut a trailer and Freddie Gray was killed in their junior year. And I was just like, “Oh my God, I have to tell a story and I have to tell it now.”
I spent the summer putting together a trailer, getting permission from the Baltimore City School System, putting agreements in place with the school, setting up guidelines with filming, and getting everyone to sign on board. In September of their senior year we hit the ground running and we just filmed all year. None of the footage from the previous year is even in the movie.
I really wanted to frame it as senior year because all the times I filmed seniors and this process, they never filmed the whole thing, and I just think from the beginning to the end it’s such an amazing journey.
W&H: So basically you did four or five years of setup, getting to know these girls before you really did that final year?
W&H: Big commitment there, Amanda.
Al: Well, you know what, here’s the thing: I never knew what was going to happen. It wasn’t really ever about making a documentary or making a film. I would’ve been a part of their lives whether I was making a film or not. And I would’ve been a supporter of the step team whether I made the film or not. So I just liked being around them.
W&H: What did you learn about yourself while you were making this movie?
Al: What I learned about myself is that we are all human. It’s really honesty what Triana says in the film, right after Cori, and she’s crying in church and she’s like, “We’re all human and we all go through things. And if you lie down and you stop, then you die. You have to get up. You have to keep going.” And even — the issues that I’ve faced in my life are not anywhere near the obstacles these young women have faced — they’re still obstacles.
There were plenty of times during this filming that I wanted to give up. Where it was just so hard and you’re dealing with so many emotions and so many family dynamics and my own family dynamics, being a working mother and having two kids that lived in New York and my husband traveling a lot. There were a lot of times where I was just like, “What am I doing? Why am I doing this?”
The girls were the ones who were like, “What are you talking about? Get it together!” They always pulled me back in. So I definitely learned that you cannot give up. You have to keep going. And the strength and the innate joy that those young women have, anytime I need to channel it, I can.
W&H: What was the most challenging part of the filming?
Al: The most challenging part was dealing with 19 teenage girls. And making sure that everyone felt important and that everybody felt like it was their story that we were telling — that we were telling everyone’s story and that everybody’s voices were heard.
The other challenging part was about being in a school and the red tape of all of that, and how that all worked. We needed to make sure that the 500-plus other girls in that school didn’t feel like, “Oh, we’re only special if cameras are following us. We only matter if we have cameras following us.”
We were very careful about when we filmed in classrooms. We limited that to a huge extreme. I wanted to make sure that every “T” was crossed and every “I” was dotted. We really made sure that their education and their academics came first, and that anybody that we came into contact with the girls knew that.
W&H: How did you get to the three characters that you really focused on?
Al: Blessin was kind of my mentee. As I said, the first day when I met her she was like, “I’m gonna be on Broadway.” She grabbed my arm and she wouldn’t let go. She started the team and she was the one who told me to come film. I knew that she was struggling academically. I was just fascinated by this young woman who seemingly had it all on the outside and presented it so well, and yet really struggled. So I definitely knew Blessin would be a cornerstone of it all because she was really my partner in the beginning and starting.
And Cori, obviously, when I saw Cori stepping for the first time I said, “That’s Cori Grainger
?” Because I knew she was number one in the class. And when I saw her out and about at school, she was very meek and mild. Not meek, just mild and shy. And kind of an observer. When she stepped she was a totally different person.
I knew her mother had her when she was a teenager and how incredible they were. And I was like, “Let’s turn that stereotype on its head. The mother who has a child when she’s a teenager and survives. And not only survives, thrives and has this brilliant child.” So I was very attracted to that.
Tayla was an incredible stepper and she didn’t join till the ninth grade, so I got to know her and then there was always this woman standing on the side in her bulletproof vest and I always knew Maisha, her mother, was very involved in the school and was always there. She was drawn to the step team the way I was drawn to the step team.
There were also a lot of other girls that I followed that obviously didn’t make the film but I found really compelling and interesting. They all had different paths and journeys and some I went to the end with and tried to do a beginning, middle, and end with their stories. And others, I just realized they didn’t really want to reveal a lot about their lives. They weren’t ready to go there. And I totally understood and respected that.
W&H: The film is also about the mothers and the story of the mothers’ struggle. Blessin’s mom was fascinating and a complicated woman. And the mom who just wanted the best for her kids. When their kids got into college and the moms were crying, I just lost it.
Al: I think what’s so interesting about Blessin’s mom. She was at the premiere last night, and she’s the biggest fan of the movie. She loves the movie. I was really nervous because I didn’t know how she was gonna react because she was very honest, and she was very raw in this piece.
Blessin’s mom first saw the movie when we came back from Sundance. We had a screening for all the families that couldn’t make it to Sundance, and Blessin’s mom was one of them. I pulled her aside before it started [and said], “I really want to apologize to you.” And she said, “Why? What are you apologizing to me for?” And I said, “I judged you before I knew you.”
So when you meet Blessin’s mom in the film it’s when I met Blessin’s mother. I hadn’t met her in all those years. When Paula [Dofat, another “Step” subject] said that she never met her that was a truth. Neither had I. I judged this woman because I felt that she wasn’t at school, that she wasn’t there for her daughter.
It was so unfair of me because Blessin’s mother, I would never call her a victim. She is a survivor of a horrible mental health system in this country, that failed her and her family. If Blessin’s mom had access to the mental health resources that she deserves, can you imagine what she could’ve accomplished or what her other children could’ve accomplished?
Just because a parent doesn’t show up to school, isn’t there in their child’s space, or there every day, it doesn’t mean that they don’t love and adore their child.
Blessin’s mother just loves her so much. And every time I was with them, that love would shine through in a million different ways.
W&H: I heard that you want to turn this into a Broadway musical.
Al: I do. Scott [Rudin, executive producer of “Step”] and I will have to figure it out.
W&H: How did Scott get involved in all of this?
Al: So when I made my first three-minute trailer, I showed it to three people. One was Scott Rudin
, one was John Buzzetti
, from William Morris Endeavor, who’s my friend and theater guru and now my agent and who signed on right away. And I sent it to [producer] Steven Cantor
. And Steven Cantor
was like, “I’m in.” I was using a local Baltimore crew and he said he was going to get me a crew in New York, because I moved from Baltimore. He enabled me to keep going. He was like, “Keep going, keep going.”
And when Scott Rudin
saw that first trailer he said, “I am in. What are you doing with this? Let’s go.” He didn’t know what kind of director I was. He had never seen anything I had done. He just saw the trailer. So that was pretty incredible that he believed that I could do it.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they leave the theater?
Al: A lot of people ask that. One of the things that I — after Sundance one of my executive producers sent me a link to a speech that Martin Luther King
, Jr. had made five months before he died, at a school in Philadelphia. And it’s literally the most incredible speech. And one I had not heard before. And I think that a lot of young people haven’t heard before. And it’s called “The Blueprint of Your Life” speech. That basically said to them, “What is the blueprint of your life? Right now, right in this moment, you have to decide which way your life is going to go.”
He goes on to say that, “No matter the circumstances of your life, though they may be intolerable, stay in school.” And I know that sounds so stingy, but that really is the message.
It doesn’t matter what your dream is, what your plan is, you have to have a plan. And if that plan is college, amazing. And if that plan is hair school, fine. If that plan is a trade school or a certificate program, go for it. You have to have a plan and you have to stick to it. You cannot let any single circumstance in your life stop you. You have to keep going. You have to get up and get your shoes on and brush it off, and go to school, and work hard for the things that you believe in.
Al: And also there is joy in our American cities. There are these pockets of joy and hope. You have to look for them. If we don’t look for them, and tell those stories, we’ll lose hope.
W&H: It is a very hopeful documentary. Congratulations for that.
Al: Thank you so much. Did you see Michelle Obama
, what she posted?
Al: She posted about the movie last night. I literally had a picture of her in my edit suite the entire time. And I’ve been dying and dying for her to see this movie. And she finally watched it and she apparently loved it. And she tweeted about it and we were blown away. We were freaking out. We were all freaking out.
W&H: That’s great. Well, you earned it. And congratulations. And what was it like when Fox Searchlight bought it? They’re spending a lot of money on getting this rolling, getting this out.
Al: They’re incredible. Nancy Utley [President of Fox Searchlight] is just such a champion of this film and the girls. It’s pretty amazing how much they’ve supported the movie, how much they believe in those girls and in the film. They have from the very beginning. From the very moment I met Nancy at Sundance, I just knew that she believed.
on the Inspiring Girls of “Step
” was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.