Step by Step: In Amanda Lipitz's doc, dance leads to empowerment

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When Amanda Lipitz was a girl attending summer camp, one of her counselors asked if she would like to try her hand at choreography. “I liked it,” she quips, a smile in her voice. “I liked telling everybody what to do.” Lipitz is the director of Step (from Fox Searchlight), a documentary about a group of African-American teens in a high-school dance class. “I think when you’re young and female, you love musicals,” she muses. “I loved Mary Poppins and The Wizard of Oz, but no one, not even the most supportive parents in the world, which I had, say to you: ‘So, do you want to be a director or a producer? No! They give you singing lessons and dance classes.”

Lipitz’s feature debut combines her longstanding passion for music and dance with her commitment to women and girls. She comes by the latter as the daughter of Brenda Brown Rever, who founded the all-girl Baltimore school that is the setting for her documentary. Lipitz and her mom are natives of that city. The filmmaker arrived in New York to study at NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts, and now lives here. She did a stint on Broadway, producing her first show, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, at the age of 24; her sideline was making shorts about girls enrolled in the Young Women’s Leadership Network, a Harlem-based program to empower teens.

When asked about her participation in that program, the filmmaker points to her unusual childhood. “When I was growing up, my mom was running a domestic violence hotline from our dining room table,” Lipitz recalls in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. “A few years ago, I mentioned the Harlem program to her, and said that she should start one in Baltimore. I don’t think that many kids suggest these kinds of ideas to their mothers, but I had this mother who could do something like that. She did, and then recruited her daughter to make films for her.” Lipitz began Step as a commercial project for the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, but she never contemplated a feature-length documentary until she visited the step class.

“Stepping” is an African-American dance genre, part tap, part hip-hop; it is almost always performed by a troupe of dancers. In addition to stepping or foot-stomping, the performers shout and sing, clap their hands and snap their fingers. While the “Lethal Ladies” of BLSYW, who are hoping to win a city-wide step competition, are Lipitz’s subjects in this high-energy documentary, the filmmaker also takes an in-depth look at three seniors, Blessin Giraldo, the team founder, and Cori Grainger and Tayla Solomon, as well as the school counselor, Paula Dofat, whose “tough love” keeps them centered. It falls to Dofat to fulfill the school’s goal of getting every senior accepted to college. The step team’s coach, Gari McIntyre, is also a strong presence in the film, as are the moms of the three young women.

Asked about the surprising access she received to the girls’ sessions with Dofat, and to their home life, Lipitz replies: “My grandmother used to say: ‘One heart feels another.’ I think my heart was in the right place and the girls could feel that, and I could feel it from them.” At times, parents are seen observing the girls during their step classes, especially Marsha, Tayla’s mom, who is a performer at heart. “The parents also knew that whether or not we were doing a documentary, I cared about their children,” Lipitz says. “I was going to be a champion of the step team, too, whether or not there was going to be a film.” In interviews, the girls testify to the strength they gain from the team, especially Cori, who admits: “I’m everything that step is not.” In particularly difficult moments, it is the collective drive of the precision dance team that keeps private problems at bay.

Lipitz began filming at BLSYW when the three seniors, members of the first graduating class, were in the ninth grade. “I was going in and out of the Baltimore school to shoot shorts,” she says, describing the footage that was intended for commercial purposes. “I never even thought about making a documentary until Blessin invited me to a step class when she was in the eighth grade.” BLSYW is a public charter school, and the private funding to that public entity supports the programs seen in the documentary, including the step team.

In 2015, when the teens were in 11th grade, Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American man, was killed while in Baltimore Police custody. “The impetus of the film was to begin a conversation about Baltimore, and when he died, it turned up the flame on that,” Lipitz recalls. “It gave the girls and their families the courage and the strength to change the story about Baltimore and to express themselves about what was happening in their city.” The step team are seen grappling with an appropriate response to Gray’s murder; they decide to compose a special tribute to him, portions of which are shown in the documentary.

Reflecting on her first feature, Lipitz remarks: “The hardest part about the film was the best part, and that was working with teenage girls… They are very dramatic, and they display a lot of emotion, especially in their senior year.” The filmmaker, who is white, says she never felt like an outsider. “I really went into this film thinking that I would turn every stereotype on its head.” Step has one staged sequence, right before the dance competition begins, and Lipitz admits it is her favorite shot. “I love when they walk down the hall in their track suits,” she says of that delightful music-video-like sequence.

Not surprisingly, the music lover is a Quentin Tarantino fan, and admits that Step’s soundtrack began with her favorite songs, as well as the music the step team turns to for inspiration. “Working with Laura Karpman and Raphael Saadiq on the music was a dream come true,” she says of the frequent collaborators. Best known as a team for the TV series “Underground,” and the film Black Nativity (2013), the duo also wrote an original song for Step’s finale. (The documentary’s excellent re-recording mix is by Jeff Seelye, who was sound supervisor on No Man’s Land.) Much of Step’s soundtrack is comprised of songs made famous by female singers, such as The Kiki Dee Band’s R&B classic “I’ve Got the Music in Me” (here performed by Thelma Houston), or features music with themes of female empowerment, such as Beyonće’s “Formation” and Fifth Harmony’s “Worth It.”

Step is comprised of several narrative threads, including the step team practice and performance sequences, the girls at school and at home, and the interviews with individual girls. Lipitz observes that as a “newbie,” it was her collaboration with editor Penelope Falk (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work) that brought it all together. “I am so grateful to her for seeing the girls the way I saw them,” she says.

Lipitz spoke to FJI shortly after the Baltimore premiere of the documentary. “It was amazing, especially to be all together again,” Lipitz says of that screening. An unabashed fan of girl power, the filmmaker is very clear about what she hopes will be the audience’s takeaway for Step. “I think the whole film shows what we all know to be true,” she states, “and that is nothing is impossible with a group of powerful women.”