Amanda Lipitz’s rousing documentary Step takes viewers inside the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women’s step dance club: a band of teens heading into their senior year of high school after founding the school’s first ever squad back in the sixth grade. Coming off a year where the team didn’t earn any victories, these young women are determined to go out banging and stomping their way to a final championship.

There are over a dozen proper members of the step squad, but Lipitz (a New Yorker and Broadway veteran who was one of the volunteers to help found the school in 2008) narrows her focus to three of the most charismatic figures with the best stories. Blessin Giraldo was the founder of the step team and the film finds her at a major crossroads, coming off a year of academic suspension from the dance crew and in danger of not carrying on her post-graduate studies thanks to poor grades. Her family is poor to the point of often never having food in the fridge, and her mother struggles mightily with depression. Bespectacled and soft spoken Cori Grainger is gunning for the spot of valedictorian and dreams of going to Johns Hopkins, but she frets when people tell her that she’ll probably need loans and debt to afford it. Fun loving Tayla Solomon likens herself to a “Beyonce that still screws up,” and has an adoring, tough, and sometimes embarrassing corrections worker mother that likes to help out with the team whenever possible.

Lipitz captures not only the step team – otherwise known as The Lethal Ladies of Baltimore – at a pivotal point in their young lives, but also a dark time for the city of Baltimore. By Blessin’s own admission, the urban environment around these young women is toxic. Team coach Gari notes that she lived on the same street as Freddie Gray, a young black man who was killed while in police custody in 2015. The Freddie Gray tragedy sparked off riots, violence, and unrest that further painted Baltimore as an unsafe place to live, and while these girls agree to an extent, they’re more cognizant and aware of how issues of poverty and equality need addressing before any healing can occur.

There are many important facets to step dancing for these young women. It’s a creative outlet that’s both physical and musical. It’s a positive distraction in an environment filled with negative influences and skewed media imposed stereotypes. It bolsters confidence. The purpose of step is to get in someone’s face, take the viewer by the throat, tell them a powerful story, and make them take notice. Step illustrates this form of dance as an intimate and immediate art form, not a passive one. Step isn’t merely an artistic expression, but also a social and deeply personal plea to be noticed, recognized, and heard.

As Blessin states at one point, “step is life,” but the real thrust of Lipitz’s work comes from wondering what the next step in life and maturation is for these girls. The dance sequences are rousing and packed with drama because the unity of the squad is constantly under threat of unravelling thanks to external sources of stress. The majority of Step spends its time outside the gym, as all three of Lipitz’s primary subjects struggle with the college and university application process, something that’s nerve wracking and loaded even for privileged students. When you come from a family that can barely afford to put food on the table every night, the stressful process becomes magnified exponentially. They go to a school where educators and administrators do everything in their power to make these girls succeed, but there’s still a fear that through circumstance and prejudice, that they won’t be given the opportunities they’ve worked eighteen years to achieve. Lipitz makes sure that the viewer sees the potential of these young women and makes a subtle plea for us to keep taking notice of bright, struggling students in similar situations.

I’ve never seen an audience react to a documentary like the audience I watched Step with at Hot Docs earlier this spring did. At numerous points during Step’s second half, the film was drowned out in thunderous applause that broke out every ten minutes or so. A second viewing of the film earlier this week outside of the confines of a documentary festival elicited similar reactions. It’s not hard to see why that is. Lipitz proves to be preternaturally adept at building and framing the narratives of the young women she chooses to profile. The investment in these young people for the audience is palpable, and these hard working girls deserve all the success in the world. This is an unabashed crowd pleaser in every sense of the term and a work of great empathy.

Having said that, Step flounders at times. It’s so focused on the team and a small handful of players, that the film never delves into the context of what this school and this team thinks about their Baltimore community. That’s a huge piece that’s missing here, and when the girls mount a rousing Black Lives Matter inspired dance routine, the context needed for such a watershed moment to have an impact is sorely lacking. In some respects, a look at the community in a greater context is off topic, but it would create an even deeper understanding of these girls.

I should also note that the theatrical release of Step has been edited down from the first time I saw the film and reviewed it back at Hot Docs. While the cuts (made likely for pacing reasons headed into the climax) focused even more of a spotlight on Blessin’s struggles to put together a college education with bad high school grades, they don’t necessarily make the film better. These cuts have made for a more tightly constructed crowd pleaser and taken away an already heavy focus on Blessin, but they further simplify a story that should be noted and appreciated for its complexity.

These relatively minor qualms aside, Step should still be celebrated for telling an impactful human drama from perspectives that often sadly go overlooked. For most of their lives, these girls have been painted into a corner and told there are some things that they’ll never be able to accomplish, and it’s outstanding to see how the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women fulfills their needs with love, kindness, and acceptance. One would have to be a true cynic to not be moved by this.

Is Step Essential Viewing?

It’s rare that a documentary has the kind of mainstream crossover appeal that Step has in abundance. It’s also the rare documentary that benefits from watching it with a crowd. It’s definitely a big screen experience based on its emotional and social weight alone.

Step opens Friday, August 11, 2017 at Cineplex Yonge Dundas. Check their website for more information. It expands to further theatres across Canada on Friday, August 18, 2017.

Step Trailer