Interview: The Young Women of “Step”
Audiences are cheering for “Step,” the documentary about a team of girls from a Baltimore school who compete in the jubilant precision world of step, which has deep roots in the African and African-American culture. They are members of the first graduating class of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, which is committed to making sure that all of the students are accepted to college, attend, and graduate from college as well. The documentary follows the team, especially three of the seniors, as the team attends competition and as its members apply to college and wait to hear whether they have been accepted.
For the Huffington Post, I interviewed director Amanda Lipitz, who has has a background in producing Broadway musicals, which helped her bring a dynamism and energy to filming the girls’ performances. But it her connection to the girls and the unwavering dedication of their family and the school over six years that gives the film the emotional power that inspired an Instagram rave from former First Lady Michelle Obama.
I also interviewed the three young women Lipitz follows in the film, team captain Blessin Giraldo and team members Tayla Solomon and valedictorian Cori Grainger.
TAYLA: Okay, so for me we’re just sitting waiting for her for the college signing day because we knew we had to perform and so we were waiting, just sitting and standing and waiting; I’m just like I don’t care how long; it’s Michelle Obama. I’ll wait all day if I have to. So while I was sitting down she walks in and she’s like “hey guys, it’s you.” We’re like “you don’t know us but we know you; we’ve known you for eight years. That was just a great experience.” Yeah, and she hugged each and every one of us and talked to us. She smells really, really nice. Yesterday we had the Baltimore premiere of the movie so we’re all getting ready for the premiere and then we see the Instagram post and we’re like “wow!” Speechless, still speechless; I don’t even have the right caption but my facial expression tells it all. She’s amazing; she’s very powerful and I’m so happy we got to meet her.
What other adventures have you had on the road, promoting the film?
BLESSIN: We talked to a lot of youth and a lot of people that don’t know about what stepping is and don’t really understand the dynamics of our communities and how we’re all about staying together sticking together. Being a black woman from Baltimore, we’re put in a really good position to represent not only ourselves, our community, our school but to represent our generation and a group of people all across the world; people that want to succeed and want to do specific things but they may not have all the resources and all the support they need. It’s up to us educate people about it, how we can get involved and how you can help, and that’s one of the best parts for me. It’s getting a chance to talk to the people that can relate to my testimony because it’s really hard to be in front of a camera and open up like that but it came easy to us because we had a good team. We wanted to do something positive for our city and we had good intentions for it. That meant we had to break down your pride and really open up to let them in so people can understand you and why you’re so frustrated or why you’re going through what you’re going through and hopefully learn from that and be better. No matter where they come from what they look like, somebody always comes out of the Q & A and says “Oh my God, I totally relate.” It may not have been like their lights going off or their grades going down. It might have been something completely different like their marriage or their business and they relate to us. They are inspired by us for being so courageous and continuing to persevere.
What does it take to be good at step?
CORI: Confidence I would say.
CORI: We had to get precise but I think the first step is confidence because you don’t have to be a stepper to look good if you’re confident while you’re doing it; you don’t have to be perfect, you can mess up all you want but if you don’t want it to look like you mess up you have to be confident.
TAYLA: But I think I agree with Blessin. Like the precision, you know when we have practice Coach would be like “you’re all not doing this right” and we’d be like “Coach we need to learn the steps” so we learned it and we made it look precise and once you feel it that’s when you get in the groove and be like “Okay, I’m confident; I got the steps and we’re going to look good together and we’re going to do every move together.”
CORI: I think that’s when you become unstoppable.
TAYLA: The ultimate stepper.
CORI: Like when we’re on stage and Coach says “I see you all zone out.”
TAYLA: When we step we have to find the space we want to look at because looking at people is weird when you step. So you don’t look at the wall, you look through the wall.
CORI: We all enter this from the perspective of us performing, I was entering from the perspective of a newbie so, what is it going to take me to be a good stepper?
BLESSIN: Maybe being willing to listen and learn.
TAYLA: Just going for it because I went in inexperienced. I didn’t start in sixth grade, I started in ninth and I was just willing to adapt and wanting to learn. They didn’t have to but they taught me what I know now to make me a better stepper and to look like them. It all comes together even when we make last-minute changes about positioning ten seconds before the show. You all might not know this but we know the formation is off and stuff like that. You got to be able to move quick and think quick.
What does is it takes to be a good captain of the step team?
BLESSIN: You can’t be in a spotlight hog. You have to know how to maneuver and tell people when they’re doing good things; like for instance when the girls on the team are always relying on her to keep the bass because we have deep voices when we yell. We are an all-girl team so when we travel and we compete against boys we all want to have incredible base, strong, deep voices. We have to uncover people’s strengths because you want them to be good. You have to be compliant. You have to be just as good in the back as you are in the front. You have to sometimes play the underdog. You have to play the person who gets in trouble because the whole team doesn’t need to get in trouble. It’s like you have to take criticism a lot because you’re not perfect and you will learn because at the end of the day you hold a title and at any moment anybody is capable of being a good captain. So you have to always keep in mind that this position is not something that is solidified; it can always be taken away from you, it’s something to defend, you have to earn it. Being a good captain you have to be very confident, you have to be focused on yourself and what you want to add to the dynamic of the team and always be very aware of the environment that you are selling; the tone of the environment.
You were the first graduating class at the Baltimore Leadership School for Women. What makes that school so special?
BLESSIN: All of the staff are dedicated, I don’t think that there is any other school in Baltimore like it. Some teachers just come in, teach, get their paycheck and leave but at our school they actually create programs for us after school so we can stay engaged and not be on the streets. They care about when we coming to class, how we get there, and they volunteer to take us home. They do things that teachers don’t necessarily do. I know we can call up any one of our teachers if we just need advice on any subject and they don’t hesitate to be there for us. The message of the school is to transform Baltimore young women one at a time and they definitely make sure they do that academically, emotionally and socially.
Does it make a difference that it’s an all-girls school?
CORI: I think that I hold women to like a certain standard now; it’s like you represent everything and more. I never want to see a woman think of herself as not being good enough or not thinking she can do anything because we are the beginning and the end. I feel like everything in this world revolves around a strong woman and it’s all about women’s empowerment. When it comes to women I’m kind of selfish and I think it’s because I was in an all-girl environment for a very long time. Men are pretty cool but I think women are way better.
BLESSIN: That’s just how I feel. I don’t mind being around men, now I go to a coed school I think we all go to coed schools now; it’s just something about being in a room full of women. You can come together and you can make magic.