In Bowie, MD, the Lethal Ladies of BLSYW stomp ferociously across the stage. Once they're in formation, they throw their arms in the air and chant, "Hands up! Don't shoot!"
The dancers on stage, aged 14 to 17, are from the inaugural class of the Baltimore Leadership School For Young Women, a charter school that aims to place every one of its low-income students in college. Led by Gari McIntyre — also known as Coach G — they're also the school's first step team. They struck and thumped their bodies through a powerful Black Lives Matter-themed routine at a Maryland state step competition, mere months after the brutal death of Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police officers.
The Lethal Ladies are the focus of Step, a highly anticipated documentary from Tony Award-winning Broadway producer Amanda Lipitz, which is available on digital demand on Oct. 17. The trailer for the film has been watched more than 1.3 million times in the four months since it appeared on YouTube and garnered glowing reviews following its premiere earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival.
The film centers on three specific team members: Cori Grainger, Tayla Solomon, and captain Blessin Giraldo. Their mothers, teachers, and, of course, the coach are also heavily featured, helping to shape the dancers through their crucial senior year of high school. The pressure to succeed at step is central to the narrative, but the stress of college applications is added in as well, along with the devastating reality that tens of thousands of tuition dollars are not readily available. "You have to find $40,000 for yourself," Paula Dofat, the school's college counselor, tells one student. The film offers an informative look at differing family situations and college prospects; while Grainger has her heart set on Johns Hopkins University, Giraldo works to find her way out of a 1.1 GPA and 53 missed days of school. But, as Giraldo says, "Step is life."
"Step is life."
Stepping originated in West Africa and was brought to the US through the transatlantic slave trade. Today, it's associated with fraternities and sororities at HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), and some US high schools also have teams. McIntyre says she hopes the film will encourage other cultures to recognize stepping for the multidisciplinary art form that it is. In an interview with POPSUGAR, Giraldo added that stepping represented "the perfect opportunity for something to impact my life and keep me attached to school." Giraldo began practicing at age 11. "Step is my life because it was my first creative endeavor," she said.
In addition to personal challenges, the death of Freddie Gray looms large as a backdrop throughout the film. The Lethal Ladies even visit Freddie Gray's memorial, laying flowers for their fellow Baltimorean. One team member goes so far as to speak out about how she didn't like CNN's portrayal of the city, lamenting that she only saw the network cover the riots and violence that occurred in the aftermath of Gray's death.
Giraldo says the step team did not participate in the riots, instead opting to help clean up the day after. Her team members, she said, have long been seen as resources and community figures for their friends and others. They received questions about the incident; Giraldo recalled speaking to "little boys and girls about why the CVS was burned down." It's important, she said, to "go out into the community to talk about fixing this issue without violence."
"It taught me a lot about discipline and being a leader. You become the beat. Step is a whole other level of dancing."
Education, as well as the step team, are seen as paths away from violence for Giraldo and her teammates. "For us, focusing on stepping helps us correlate something with a deeper meaning," said Giraldo. "It taught me a lot about discipline and being a leader. You become the beat. Step is a whole other level of dancing."
McIntyre still lives on Gilmor Street, the road where Gray was arrested. An all-around mentor to the team, she's had conversations about life skills, such as personal hygiene and credit, but also about police brutality. In reference to Gray's death, she told the Lethal Ladies that: "It could have been you any time of the day."
While the content of a step performance depends on the choreographer, McIntyre leans toward the political with her routines. She was the mastermind behind the Black Lives Matter routine and one she calls Black Girl Magic, which incorporates parts of actor Jesse Williams's landmark speech at the 2016 BET Awards. "Just because we're magic doesn't mean we're not real," Williams said during the speech, inspiring both the title and theme behind the routine.
"I wanted the conversation to change," said McIntyre. "These are young people, they're shooting for higher education, and even if they weren't, they're people and they have value."
"Joy, hope, disgust, anger. Because you're stomping and clapping and using your entire body, these are the reasons why stepping is a revolutionary fervor."
It's mesmerizing to watch these young women perform, their bodies moving as one unit and creating music. "Stepping is really a way to channel a lot of feelings, and the students use it for coping," said McIntyre, who stressed that step is not dance — it's a release of emotions. "Joy, hope, disgust, anger. Because you're stomping and clapping and using your entire body, these are the reasons why stepping is a revolutionary fervor."
Giraldo, who has just finished her first year of college, hopes the government will review the education budgets again and recognize how the arts, something that changed her life, are vitally important. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely given President Donald Trump's plan to not only slash $9.2 billion from the Department of Education, but to dismantle most federal arts funding. But optimism never hurts.
Though they're on the edge of stardom and have even been featured in Vogue, Giraldo and her fellow Lethal Ladies are excited about representing the positivity and possibility of Baltimore. "Step the movie is going to show what guys and girls are capable of when people pay attention," she said.
"Baltimore has a different sense of pride when you get there. When I come home now, I feel empowered. I feel amazing."