After Sundance success, 'Step' director hopes Baltimore dance team continues to inspire

Sundance hit "Step" was fueled by the "fire" of Baltimore step team, its director says.

Director Amanda Lipitz made waves at the Sundance Film Festival with her debut documentary "Step," which follows the step team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, and the lives, ambitions and creative expressions of three of its members.

The film premiered to great buzz and won a special jury prize for inspirational filmmaking. Fox Searchlight Pictures has also acquired worldwide distribution and remake rights to "Step," which promises more exposure.

But when asked about her recent accomplishments, Lipitz, an Owings Mills native, gave credit to the film's stars, each of whom has become an integral part of her life.

"The seed started when these girls started the step team. ... These girls were going to make it happen," said Lipitz, who was accompanied by 19 young women from the step team (and 10 chaperones) to Utah for Sundance.

"I couldn't ever go without them," she added. "It was their movie."

The 36-year-old, who now resides in New York, has spent the past six years watching these girls grow into young adults. The film follows Cori Grainger, Talya Solomon and Blessin Giraldo, whom Lipitz met as 11-year-old students at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, a charter school founded by Lipitz's mother, Brenda Brown Rever. It was that same year that the girls founded the school's step team, threading a series of movements and melodic beats made with the clapping of their hands and the stomping of their feet. But it would be years before Lipitz would capture their talent — as well as the challenges they faced on their way to becoming first-generation college students — on film for the world to see.

Lipitz is better known for her work as a Broadway producer, working on such productions as Tony Award-winning play "The Humans" and the "Legally Blonde" musical. But she made an unplanned foray into short documentaries when asked by her alma mater, New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, to make a short film to help them raise money for scholarships. It morphed into a side career for Lipitz, who began making short documentaries about girls' education and students who were the first in their families to go to college.

It was while filming another project with two Baltimore Leadership School students when Lipitz got the inspiration for her breakout film.

"They started stepping and I was like 'What are you guys doing?'" Lipitz recalled. The girls, then in the eighth grade, explained the practice and told her about the team they had founded.

"They were like, 'Miss Amanda, we're amazing, and the next time you come to the school with cameras, you need to come film us.'"

Lipitz arranged to film the students stepping at the school soon after, which left her speechless.

"My heart kind of exploded because I've been living my life in musicals, and, to me, it was like a musical," she said. "In a musical, characters can't speak anymore so they sing to express their fears, their hopes and their dreams, and that's what these girls were doing with step."

When the girls reached the 10th grade, Lipitz met with their families to gauge whether they'd be interested in sharing their personal lives and having their senior year filmed. She observed the students as they went through the 11th grade, filming select moments and watching how they handled obstacles, as when a girl fell behind in school. Lipitz saw the school's staff and step team rally around her.

The death of Freddie Gray in April 2015, months before the start of the girls' senior year, was a turning point in the project.

"I watched my hometown burn on television, and I watched all of these people calling me, saying 'Oh, my God, Baltimore is the most dangerous city in America!' And for the first time, I felt very protective of Baltimore," Lipitz said.

"I said, 'I know that this is not the whole story, because I know what's going on at this school, with these girls and with these teachers, and all this good that is happening in Baltimore.'"

As for the girls, "Gray's death lit a fire in them," Lipitz said.

"The motto at Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women is to transform Baltimore one young woman at a time, and that had so much more meaning after [Gray] died."

On Sept. 1, 2015, the first day of the girls' senior year, Lipitz "hit the ground running" with filming, which she said was an amazing experience.

While "Step" got a warm reception at Sundance, what mattered most to Lipitz was the reaction of the film's subjects.

"I was so nervous because really all I ever wanted was to make them proud and proud to have been a part of it. And they loved it, so that just meant the world to me," Lipitz said, adding that some students who couldn't make the trip were streaming the awards ceremony on their computers.

"Knowing that they were watching ... and feeling like winners and feeling so much confidence and feeling that it was worth it to share their stories, that they were brave and pioneers and inspiring other people, that was just the best part about it."

Now, Lipitz hopes that the film will create an ongoing discussion about education and college preparation and that it will serve as a platform for the social impact and outreach that she plans do in the community. No date is set for the film's release, but the deal with Fox Searchlight makes her goals for the film and its social impact more tangible, Lipitz said.

It just goes to show, Lipitz said, "when you come together with a group of powerful women, nothing is impossible."

bbritto@baltsun.com

twitter.com/brittanybritto

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