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A Baltimore dance team shows us how movement matters

Photo: Blessin Giraldo, Paula Dofat, Tayla Solomon, and Cori Grainger in “Step”

by T.T. Stern-Enzi

Tough, inspirational, inner-city documentaries tend to find themselves lined up alongside the 1994 Steve James film “Hoop Dreams,” which presented the lives of two Chicago teens (William Gates and Arthur Agee) as they stared down long odds of transitioning from high school to collegiate basketball on the way to their ultimate goal of one day playing professionally. The film documents the perilous realities kids face when they invest so much in an elusive dream, one that countless others pursue at the same time, every day, week, and year. “Hoop Dreams” personalizes the struggles, while also showing their single-minded focus. Yet, we appreciate the impact of the overall goal, not only on the kids but also their families and larger communities. Even one fleeting glimpse at success sets examples for a host of other aspirants to come.

The latest iteration of this truly American story arrives courtesy of Amanda Lipitz, whose “Step” captured a Special Jury Prize (Inspirational Filmmaking – Documentary) at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The film tracks several young women as they enter senior year at a Baltimore high school, where they have performed and competed as part of a step dance team. The elder team members, fiercely competitive and ferociously talented, want to exit this phase of their step careers as winners, but must also overcome challenges as they seek to establish clear pathways towards the future.

Unlike “Hoop Dreams,” there is no greater glory awaiting them via step dance. These students know that the only goal on the horizon is college, but in most of their cases the mere idea of post-high school education is unfamiliar. They have no parental role models who have lain down steps for them to follow, and their academic efforts, in some cases, make the possibility seem as insurmountable a dream as those of Gates and Agee in the James documentary.

But one of the poignant differences between “Hoop Dreams” and “Step” has to do with outside focus. Baltimore finds itself caught up in the current cycle of socio-political drama involving the community policing crisis that threatens to rip apart our nation. The suspicious death of Freddie Gray while in police custody and the resulting trial (and acquittals) have strained relations between the police and the community to the breaking point. This narrative is just one of several encounters across the country that has sparked ongoing protests and media debates.

And the girls step team doesn’t shy away from tackling the issues in their performances. They create routines that defiantly address the Black Lives Matter movement and the embrace roles for themselves as advocates and citizens with personal stakes in the realities of life on the streets. They dance as if their movements can and should provide fuel for a righteous fire that is bigger and more meaningful than their individual situations.

It is startling to recognize this level of responsibility and commitment in students who should only have to think about and prepare for the next step on their own journeys. Most of the film skews to the girls, their intimate family dramas and their efforts to graduate and achieve the dream of higher education, but in those moments on stage, as they pound out rhythms full of joy, pride and pain, where they take on the burdens of every life lost—whether young or old—in the last six years (and the memories of those going back to the experiences brought to the screen in Katherine Bigelow’s “Detroit”), “Step” dares us to think about how we, as a nation, have failed these kids.

Dreams are never cheap or easy, but when we obscure even the simple possibility of them in the first place, crushing the dreamers under the weight of societal expectations and tragic circumstances with no sense of “justice for all,” then we need to accept responsibility and listen to the beating rhythm deep within. The young women of “Step” are laying it down, plain and true.

STEP [PG-13] A