Sundance Review: STEP

Just try to keep still during this entertaining and informative documentary.

It must have been during my beloved Drumline that I first encountered stepping as a thing. Perhaps it was way back when I saw Savion Glover on Broadway in Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk? Or, quoth Homer Simpson, “I think I saw [it] in Rent, or Stomp, or Clomp, or some piece of crap.” Yet the joy of the documentary Step has less to do with this amped-up line dancing that the title implies and everything to do with the empowerment and excellence of a group of young people in Baltimore.

Structured like a general sports documentary with its cadence of rise/fall/rise, the film has echoes of numerous films that chart the competition of athletes against their academic struggles and achievements. Crosscutting between their practices and performances and their home lives provides the explicit contrast, all as these women are striving to get into a post-secondary institution.

We meet the senior class of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, a charter program that promises 100% graduation rates and entrance to college for all its students. It’s an ambitious goal, and with many of these young women coming from underprivileged backgrounds the barriers are real. These are the girls who started at the school together, and as they enter their final year they strive not only to succeed in class but to finally take home a top prize at the local step competition.

For those unaware, this mix of tap, gymnastics, cheerleading and synchronized hip-hop dancing is far more than simply a precise and choreographed routine. It exemplifies the spirit of these young women, overtly demonstrating a fierce determination and refusal to submit to the limitations that are continuously being placed on them. Part primal scream, part refusal to submit, there’s both a performative and political spirit to the dancing, a kind of meta ballet where calls of Black Lives Matter and “Hands up, don’t shoot!” are incorporated between tap moves and arm waving.

Thus the step routines are equally entertaining and energizing, a focus for these women to learn discipline, cooperation and tenacity. It’s the same spirit that’s the principal meant to be behind all extra-curricular activities, but in a land where High School Football is a televised entertainment, it’s refreshing to see these activities in their more pure phase.

Director Amanda Lipitz’s background is on Broadway, and it’s easy to see how this doc’s narrative could fuel both a feature and a stage show. It hits all the beats you’d expect, and the craft of the film is perfectly attuned to audience expectations. This isn’t a fault of the film, though jaded doc fans may pine for a far darker, deeper rumination like Hoop Dreams than this work. Still, the film’s very accessibility may prove its greatest asset, allowing wider audiences to take a glimpse at both the community and the artistry demonstrated in the work.

Step may not walk down any unexpected paths, but by showcasing a group of young African-American women in such a powerful light the film is certainly notable. Along with their teachers and other supporters, you get a strong sense both of community and commitment, an intimate look at their lives as well as the thrill and excitement of their dance. It’s a film that’s sure to spawn many imitators itself, and one well worth seeking out to both illuminate and entertain.