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Lipitz: Step is story of hardship, hope

By DAN LYBARGER Special to the Democrat-Gazette

This article was published August 18, 2017 at 1:46 a.m.

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Lethal Ladies of BLYSW

Amanda Lipitz has made her name in two diverse fields. On Broadway, she's a Tony-winning producer whose plays include The Humans and Legally Blonde: The Musical. And earlier this year, she won a special jury prize for Inspirational Filmmaking at Sundance for Step, her new documentary about an inner city Baltimore high school step dancing team.

The film follows three seniors (Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger, Tayla Solomon) at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women as they compete in step dancing competitions and struggle with challenges at home and in the classroom. Step dancing incorporates complicated rhythms, vocal work, clapping, stomping and moves involving the entire body.

Lipitz, speaking from Toronto, says that while it might seem unrelated to the stage presentations she has helped bring to life, it's still related to her previous work.

"I didn't know 'step' ... when I walked in," she says. "But for me it's what happens in a great musical. In a great musical, the characters can't speak anymore, so they sing to express their hopes and their dreams, and that's what these young women were doing.

"I didn't know about the rich history coming from Africa, [about it] being something the miners used to communicate with each other. Now, in North America, it's a collegiate sport. It's something you learn by being in a fraternity or a sorority in African-American culture."

Lipitz, a white Baltimore native, says that one of the girls proposed the film to her while she was making a series of shorts about first generation college students and about the relatively new school, which has a 100 percent graduation rate and has sent all of its graduates on to college. It follows in the footsteps of New York's similarly successful Young Women's Leadership School. Lipitz recalls how her mother was instrumental in getting the new school started.

"People would say, 'You should make a documentary.' I never really found the thing I wanted to make a documentary about," Lipitz recalls. "Blessin came to me, she said, 'The next time you come to school with cameras, please come film the step team,'" Lipitz recalls.

Giraldo was 11 at the time.

The director-producer says her two careers have also made each other possible.

"Being a producer for so long made me a better director," she says. "It taught me about story and shape and not being defensive when people give you notes and understanding budgets and numbers and dealing with actors and people and the politics of things. And, obviously, how to raise money. When you're a documentarian, that's a big part of your job is raising money. I did that all the time as a Broadway producer."

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

While the film was inspired by her personal connection with the young women on the step team, it's hardly a work of PR. Step candidly deals with Giraldo's academic difficulties and documents how the students have to perform on stage and in the classroom even when their parents' utilities are cut off.

"The thing that this film captures is their amazing joy and their ability to be joyful even in circumstances that for others would keep them from putting one foot in front of the other and getting out of bed in the morning," she says. "They have it because of their incredible mothers, their incredible teachers and their incredible school.

"My whole thing was that when I was filming and obviously when I was in the editing room is that all I ever wanted was that I wasn't thinking about Sundance, I wasn't thinking about Fox Searchlight buying it for $4 million. I wasn't even thinking about that. The only thing I was thinking about was that I want these young women to have been proud to be a part of this film."

Just as it's doubtful Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington could have made their immersive take on the war in Afghanistan Restrepo if they hadn't spent 15 months embedded with the soldiers they covered, a casual visitor to Baltimore couldn't have made the same sort of film as Lipitz has.

When asked about the experience, she laughs, "I've dealt with teenage girls, which can sometimes be very challenging.

"I also spent time with them with the cameras not rolling, and the truth of the matter is whether I made this film or not, these young women would have been a part of my life, and I would have been a part of theirs, and I would have been supporting of the step team and then following them because I've always loved them. So the movie was almost second to my love and appreciation and respect for the women in this film."

Step was also filmed as Baltimore wrestled with the aftermath of the death of Freddie Carlos Gray, Jr. while he was in police custody. Gray was arrested in April 2015 for possessing an illegal switchblade, received a spinal injury in the police van and died in the hospital soon after. The six police officers' criminal trail ended in five acquittals and one mistrial, but the cause of his death is still hotly debated. Much of that conflict can be seen in Step.

"That was obviously three years ago, but I still think the film is even more relevant now and timely and in the zeitgeist. Obviously, Freddie Gray's death was an incredible tragedy, and I still think we're unpacking why he died. But for me, I really wanted to show this pocket of hope and joy embodied by these young people," Lipitz says.

Lipitz and the step team toured North America last summer, so new audiences could discover step and the women who perform it. She says the upbeat conclusion is more than simply shutting off her cameras after graduation day.

"Freshman year is really hard," she says. "It's not easy. They did well. They continue to learn and grow. Blessin is still learning how to be a good student. Cori finished her year very strong. When you're the one valedictorian at your school and then you go to a school where everyone's a valedictorian, it's not easy. Tayla was certainly homesick but ended up on the dean's list."

She says the movie defies demographic data and preconceived notions.

"The thing about this film is that it's not red. It's not blue. It's not black. It's not white. It's not rich or poor. It's about an American city that has joy and hope, and you don't always see that, so I think that people need to see that."

MovieStyle on 08/18/2017

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