On the totem pole of society, black girls are distributed at the bottom. The magic within us is an unmatched recipe consisting of our resilience, perseverance and love. No matter the adversity and hate hurled at us, we rise from the ashes like an intoxicating phoenix. And this is the feeling you’ll get while watching Step.
I remember the moment I first saw the trailer for Amanda Lipitz’s movie. The rhythmic stomp of combat boots reverberated through my spirit and left me entranced. A 2017 Sundance Film Festival selection distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, Step follows the talented Lethal Ladies, a step team from the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women.
Stepping was lifted from the roots of African-based community traditions and was created as a form of communication, representing allegiance to a specific group. Its main inspirations can be drawn from gumboot, a South African foot dance done by miners to substitute for drumming, which was banned by their respective authorities. In the early 1900s, African-American fraternities and sororities would incorporate stepping into their song and dance rituals. Over the years, it has evolved from the Divine Nine origins into what we see today, including on-campus step shows and national competitions.
“You mess with my sister, you mess with me!” is a frequent chant throughout the film, serving as the sisterhood link that binds them into the pulsing Voltron that they all become once they take the stage. The Lethal Ladies are headed by the majestic coach Gari McIntyre, aka “Coach G,” who drills tenets to guide them toward adulthood just as much as—if not more than—she drills 8-counts into the girls’ heads.
In addition, they are cloaked in the love of their mothers and matriarchs (shoutout to their college counselor, Paula Dofat), who snap them back into sense when needed. In fact, there was one scene that stood out to me when one of the girls applauded her mother’s energy and support, noting, “We were homeless, and I didn’t even know.”
The girls are surrounded by systemic poverty, divided families and violence. With everything stacked against them to enshroud their beings within the darkness, they somehow become the light. In one scene, the girls went to a stepping conference where they took a class taught by a “master step” instructor, a Zeta Phi Beta member. She instilled the importance of “serving face” to the girls, noting that without the emotional core displayed on your facial expression, every step they made meant nothing.
To her, the steps don’t hit as hard if you don’t see it in your face. It was a poignant moment, as the girls subsequently boiled up every emotion they had suppressed—from rage to frustration to passion—and erupted into a fiery and expression-filled routine. From their temples to their chins, you could tell that they didn’t come to play. By utilizing the trauma and stressors in their lives, the girls channeled that energy to create an alluring masterpiece of cadence.
Blessin Giraldo, a senior high school student and the team captain, easily floats as the star. Blessed with the ability to construct a full symphony of beats by ear, Blessin stands out as a peer-based leader. Although she carries the burden of her depressed mother, failing grades that limit her college choices and wondering where her next meal comes from, Blessin’s spirit radiates in the most blinding way.
Then there’s Cori Grainger, who—on the surface—seems to hide behind the shell of her colorful rectangular frames and her exponentially good grades, but who channels her inner Sasha Fierce as soon as you hear the first stomp. And I can’t forget Tayla Solomon, who rolled her eyes at her ever-present mother but stomped her way into success despite pitfalls.
Whether dealing with the incendiary effects of Freddie Gray’s death in their city or tackling the stresses of college applications, these girls are far from careless. With all the disadvantages before them, the Lethal Ladies are not even close to existing without concerns or cares; but once they get into their flawless formation, they are carefree. And they deserve that.
Step is life—and these girls will give you so much of it.
Step is now in theaters. Head to the film’s website to learn more.