Get Step director Amanda Lipitz talking about the girls at the heart of her film—exuberant members of the step dance team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women—and she’s liable to tear up.
“I cry when I talk about them,” she tells Deadline. “The girls give me such hope… Their mothers inspire me as a mother. They’re my family. I don’t know how to put into words how much they mean to me.”
The bond began forming almost a decade ago when Lipitz, a Tony Award-winning Broadway producer and native of Baltimore, started making short documentaries to bring attention to BLSYW — the city’s newly-founded all-female public charter school.
One day, as Lipitz tells the story, a couple of girls introduced themselves and urged her to check out the step team they had just launched—and to bring her camera. One of them was an astoundingly charismatic sixth grader named Blessin Giraldo.
“Blessin sat down in front of my camera and it was like Ms. Pac-Man—she just ate the screen,” Lipitz recalls. “And she looked right at me and said, ‘You’re a Broadway producer?’ I said yeah. And she said, ‘I’m going to be on Broadway.’ I totally believed her, even though she was 11 years old.”
Step opens with Blessin and team mates Cori Grainger and Tayla Solomon entering their senior year of high school, with the squad intent on scoring victory in Baltimore’s most demanding step competition. But winning is by no means the only pressure they face; economic struggles squeeze their families, and they worry over getting into college and how to afford it. Around them, Baltimore remains tense in the aftermath of the tragic death of Freddie Gray, a young African-American man fatally injured while in police custody.
“This film touches on the biggest challenges facing young people today, and they’re all there—poverty, finances, mental illness, single-parent [families], violence, but yet the girls don’t dwell. And neither does the film. And neither does the school. No one’s dwelling on any of this,” Lipitz insists. “I think the overwhelming message is get up, put your feet on the ground, put your shoes on, zip up your backpack and go to school.”
Lipitz describes stepping as “a performance art where the person uses their entire body as an instrument… It’s a form of expression.” For the girls, step simultaneously provides an escape—into an activity that demands tremendous discipline—and a way to confront the reality around them. One of the spirited routines they created takes its theme from the Black Lives Matter movement.
Step, which recently qualified for Oscar consideration, won a special jury prize for inspirational storytelling at Sundance. It was at the festival, as Deadline reported back in January, that Fox Searchlight acquired rights to the film, paying “north of $4 million.”
“From the sale to Fox Searchlight we [the film’s producers] gave scholarships to all 19 girls on the step team. And we gave a gift to the school. We set up 529 education accounts for all the girls, and that’s the best part,” Lipitz says with obvious pride.
The film is now streaming on VOD platforms including Amazon Prime and iTunes after a successful theatrical run. All of this has provided vindication for Lipitz, who says it wasn’t easy getting the project off the ground.
“So many people told me ‘No’ on this movie. Major people. ‘Nope, we’re not interested.’ And I raised the money bit by bit, myself and [producer] Steven Cantor—we were raising money as the doors were closing on the plane to Sundance,” she recalls. “We did this beat by beat, bit by bit. We put it together, just like the [Sondheim] song. That makes it even better. That makes it even sweeter!”
The sweetness doesn’t end there. Lipitz says she’s working on a fictional adaptation for Fox Searchlight. Lipitz, Cantor and Scott Rudin—who also served as an executive producer on the documentary—are producing.
“I’m really excited about it. We’ll see what happens,” she says.
The continued association with step will give the director more time to work on her own step form. She calls her current skills “horrible.”
“I danced modern and tap and all that stuff. I can’t step. I really can’t,” she concedes. “But if there were ever times [making the documentary] where everybody needed to lighten up, I would step, and then the girls would laugh and we’d all start laughing. They love watching me try to step.”