THE NEXT STEP

Team­mates lift Bal­ti­more and them­selves

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Tre'vell An­der­son

When most peo­ple think of Bal­ti­more, the blue light district comes to mind — the area of the city doused in cobalt from po­lice lights atop light poles in ar­eas said to have high crime rates. This is what “The Wire” in­tro­duced mil­lions to.

Others will flash back to the city’s burn­ing build­ings and cars broad­cast to the world in April 2015 dur­ing com­mu­nity up­ris­ings fol­low­ing the death of Fred­die Gray, who died af­ter sus­tain­ing spinal in­juries while in po­lice cus­tody.

“But you al­ways have the other side,” said Tayla Solomon, one of the city’s na­tives. “Every­body thinks of Bal­ti­more as this dan­ger­ous place … so when you tell some­one you’re from Bal­ti­more, they ask, ‘Oh, is it re­ally like “The Wire?” ’ But ev­ery city has its vi­o­lence and po­lice, their drugs and al­co­holism, and ev­ery city has its pos­i­tiv­ity as well.”

Solomon, who has just com-

pleted her first year at Alabama A&M Univer­sity in Huntsville, is one of three young women at the center of the doc­u­men­tary “Step,” open­ing in lim­ited re­lease Friday. She hopes that af­ter au­di­ences see the film, which high­lights a small com­mu­nity at the Bal­ti­more Lead­er­ship School for Young Women, her city will have a bet­ter rep­u­ta­tion.

“The next time I tell some­one I’m from Bal­ti­more, I want them to ask, ‘Is it re­ally like “Step”?’ ”

“Step” fol­lows Solomon, Blessin Gi­raldo, Cori Grainger and their step team at an all-girls, col­lege-prep pub­lic char­ter school in the city.

(For the unini­ti­ated: Step is a per­cus­sive art form in which the body is used as an in­stru­ment to cre­ate com­plex rhythms and sounds us­ing stomps, claps and spo­ken word. Deeply rooted in a rich African tra­di­tion, step­ping is most of­ten em­ployed by black fra­ter­ni­ties and soror­i­ties world­wide. It’s seen bouts of main­stream at­ten­tion with films like Spike Lee’s “School Daze” and 2007’s “Stomp the Yard.”)

The three se­niors are all mem­bers of the school’s first grad­u­at­ing class, and they share the goal of be­ing the first in their fam­i­lies to go to col­lege.

As is the case for most born black and low-in­come, life is rarely a crys­tal stair­case. In the words of Langston Hughes, it has “tacks in it and splin­ters and boards torn up and places with no car­pet on the f loor — bare.” But with the tough love of their prin­ci­pal, Chevonne Hall, coach, Gari McIn­tyre, and col­lege ad­vi­sor, Paula Do­fat, suc­cess is on the hori­zon at Bal­ti­more Lead­er­ship School for Young Women.

Film­ing for the doc started when the girls were in ninth grade. At the in­sis­tence of Gi­raldo — who had the idea to launch the step team as the school’s first elec­tive af­ter be­ing in­tro­duced to it at Mor­gan State Univer­sity — di­rec­tor Amanda Lipitz came to one of the group’s prac­tices.

Lipitz had been around the school work­ing on other projects when Gi­raldo, who had Broad­way as­pi­ra­tions, got word of the for­mer Broad­way pro­ducer’s cred­its (“Dirty Rot­ten Scoundrels,” “Legally Blonde: The Musical”). Af­ter wit­ness­ing the 19-per­son team re­hearse, Lipitz thought the group would be a great ve­hi­cle to help re­de­fine the per­cep­tion of the area where she too was born. She fol­lowed the young women, known as the Lethal Ladies of BLSYW (the school’s ini­tials), or LLOB, for three years. Then Fred­die Gray died.

“That just changed every­thing,” she said, not­ing that most of the film’s footage is from the fi­nal year of shoot­ing. “When I watched my home­town burn on tele­vi­sion, that was truly shock­ing. When I watched the mother go into the riot, pull out her son and hit him, I was, like, ‘Those are my moth­ers … on the step team.’ When [Gray] was killed, I think it gave the young women the strength and the courage to re­ally go all the way, to re­ally be open and de­vote a lot of their se­nior year of high school to me and my cam­era crew.”

The re­sult is a well re­viewed, heart-tug­ging hour and 23 min­utes of a com­mu­nity try­ing to re­buff so­ci­ety’s expectations and thrive in spite of it. It won a spe­cial jury prize for “in­spi­ra­tional film­mak­ing” af­ter it pre­miered at this year’s Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val.

“We didn't think that our sto­ries were in­spir­ing or that in­ter­est­ing,” said Grainger, who ma­jors in com­puter science and in­ter­na­tional stud­ies and mi­nors in Span­ish at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity. “It’s good to see peo­ple are tak­ing life lessons from our sto­ries.”

Take, for ex­am­ple, Gi­raldo’s story in the film. Al­though she’s the strong and vo­cal cap­tain of the group, she wasn’t al­ways aca­dem­i­cally fo­cused; a low grade point av­er­age might leave her post-grad­u­a­tion vi­sions for her­self un­ful­filled. Vi­o­lence and de­pres­sion within her home also take their toll. But Gi­raldo said she had no re­grets through­out the film­ing process.

“I had a goal in mind and that was to in­spire young women around the world who may be go­ing through some of the same things, maybe even worse,” she said. “In order to get the full essence of who I am, you need to know where I come from and what I’ve been through. And while it doesn’t de­fine who I am; it is part of who I am.”

Gi­raldo just com­pleted her fresh­man year at Bal­ti­more’s Cop­pin State Univer­sity, where she ma­jors in busi­ness mar­ket­ing with mi­nors in graphic de­sign and com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

“When you look at my story, you see a girl try­ing to over­come a lot of strug­gles and ad­ver­sity in her life,” she con­tin­ued, “but at the end of the day, she’s in tri­umph. She started the step team, and look where it has gone. Her vi­sion started this and with the help of her sis­ters, there’s a film that took us to Sun­dance . ... It started with a dream but ended with com­mu­nity.”

The film’s events take place against the back­drop of step­ping, the way it’s meant to be, said McIn­tyre, a Bal­ti­more na­tive known af­fec­tion­ately as Coach G.

She came to the team well into its for­ma­tion (as the sixth in a se­ries of coaches) af­ter a num­ber of others were un­able to stick around.

Rec­om­mended for the job by one of her soror­ity sis­ters — she’s a mem­ber of the his­tor­i­cally black Delta Sigma Theta Soror­ity Inc. — she saw an op­por­tu­nity, through step, to men­tor “th­ese lit­tle black girls who looked like me.”

“Meet­ing them, I saw their drive in want­ing to be stand-up cit­i­zens, and [I felt like I could] be some­one they could look up to — es­pe­cially since, no shade, they didn't have the best role mod­els … on In­sta­gram and Face­book, but had a lov­ing en­vi­ron­ment at the school,” she said.

“I feel like I’m the bridge be­tween that, be­cause I know the cul­ture and who’s pop­pin’ and who's not. But I’m also go­ing to hold you ac­count­able be­cause I love you and am go­ing to be real with you.

“Step is just the ves­sel, but I’m in­still­ing se­ri­ous prin­ci­ples and life skills.”

And to those still look­ing at Bal­ti­more neg­a­tively, she notes, “There are th­ese pock­ets of joy in ev­ery com­mu­nity ev­ery­where.”

Lipitz added: “We have to look for them and re­mind our­selves as cit­i­zens of this coun­try to tell those sto­ries.”

Pa­trick T. Fal­lon For The Times

THE DOC­U­MEN­TARY “Step,” about a high school step team, was made by Amanda Lipitz, left. Gari McIn­tyre is the team’s coach.

Wil­liam Gray Fox Searchlight Pic­tures

MEM­BERS of the Bal­ti­more step squad the Lethal Ladies of BLSYW prac­tice a move in a scene from the new doc­u­men­tary.

Pa­trick T. Fal­lon For The Times

“STEP” par­tic­i­pants, from left, Blessin Gi­raldo, Tayla Solomon and Cori Grainger per­form one of their rou­tines. All are now in col­lege.

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