Perhaps the most compelling moment in “Step” — in a documentary full of them — takes place not during a tense step-dance competition, but in an unremarkable office at a Baltimore high school for girls, whose college admissions counselor is trying to persuade two representatives of a state school to take a chance on one of her students.
The young woman in question has struggled, academically and personally, and the counselor — whose name is Paula Dofat — speaks with urgency, her voice beginning to tremble.
“If we don’t come together,” she says, tears colliding with her words, “this girl is not going to make it.”
Dofat quickly apologizes (“This is so unprofessional; I’m so sorry”), smiling, but she needn’t; this scene, and many others, exemplified the message of this powerful film: Together, we can lift each other up. You see it as the step-dance team — the Lethal Ladies of BLSYW (Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, an inner-city public charter school) — rehearses, “making music with our bodies,” as one student describes it.
You see it in the relationship between one student and her hardworking, devoted mother: “My mom is like a magic wand in human form,” says the shy teen. And you see it in the way the staffers at the school, like Dofat, fiercely focus on helping their students — most of them black, many of them poor — to get into college, to succeed there, to take control of their lives.
Director Amanda Lipitz (in a strong feature-length debut) focuses on three members of the team, all high-school seniors: exuberant Blessin, whose single mother struggles with depression; studious Cori, who’s learning to code and dreams of attending Johns Hopkins; bubbly Tayla, whose corrections officer mother is the team’s unofficial head cheerleader. All are funny and smart and lovely and inspiring, as is the film.
Its dramatic high point isn’t what you’d expect — the finals of the step competition — but a quieter and far more impactful series of moments, when the students learn the results of their college applications.
Like Dofat, I couldn’t help weeping; you realize you’re watching the actual moment in which these bright-eyed fledglings might get their wings. There’s no doubt that they, with the help of the remarkable women around them, will soar.