Young Women of 'Step' Find Power Through Performance and Higher Education

March 19, 2018

by Kim Szarmach, Communications Intern

 Photograph courtesy of Picture Motion 

Stage lights illuminate a group of 19 young, Black, Baltimore women standing in formation. In unison, they clap their hands, stomp their feet and sing, channeling their stories through the sound and movements they make with their bodies. They are the Lethal Ladies of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women and they are the focus of a new documentary called Step, directed by Amanda Lipitz

The film not is not just about the percussive dance tradition called step. While the featured high schoolers make their way to the biggest step competition in the region, they are also applying for colleges, filling out financial aid forms, and waiting for acceptance letters.  

The Lethal Ladies' coach Geri McIntyre, a first-generation college graduate, makes a point to teach team members the skills they need to succeed academically in the future. 

"I want them to understand that this is way bigger than step. It's about not making excuses, making sacrifices and having a positive attitude," she says in the movie. 

Ultimately, step allows the film's subjects to realize their power and potential by giving them a space to be expressive in a country that diminishes the voices of Black women. In 2015, Black females enrolled in college at the second-lowest rate of racial and gender demographics at 36 percent, ahead of only black and Hispanic men.

Those who feel compelled to take action after seeing the movie are encouraged to work with a local organization that helps young men and women plan for their futures — specifically college or help mentor a young person who is struggling in high school. High schools, middle schools, community groups and dance teams have hosted 165 screenings across the country since the film's release. Anyone who wishes to request a screening of Step can fill out and submit this form. The movie is also available for screening on Hulu. 

Two of the main characters in the documentary, Cori and Blessin, faced barriers on their way to college, but step empowered them to beat the odds by working hard and believing in their abilities.  

Cori's mother had her when she was 16 and she now has five other siblings. They have a loving family, but they have experienced homelessness and spent days without electricity when the bills can't be paid. Meanwhile, Blessin's single mom struggles with mental illness and is not always active in her daughter's life. The family has gone through periods of food insecurity and in part because of her tumultuous home life, Blessin missed a lot of school during her junior year, causing her grades to suffer.  

 

The girls' stories are emotional, but ultimately inspiring. They prove that with a supportive community and dedication to a goal, nothing is impossible.  

"I'm going to put my all into everything I'm doing, because this is not it for me," Blessin said at a time in the film where it didn't seem she would make it to college. 

And it wasn't. Focusing more on her studies senior year, Blessin ends up on a postsecondary pathway with BridgeEdu, a program that uses technology and coaching to get underserved students through college. It was founded by advocate and author Wes Moore, who delivered a keynote address at the 2017 NCAN National Conference. 

Cori, who had her sights set high on the likes of Barnard College and her dream school Johns Hopkins University, became the class valedictorian and earned a full-ride scholarship to the latter. 

At the conclusion of the film, a triumphant final performance and a tearful graduation ceremony signify the end of high school for the Lethal Ladies, but their futures have so much in store. Not all of them will choose to continue stepping, but the sisterhood will never stop making noise in a world that desperately needs to hear them.

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