This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
The night before I sat down with the endlessly inspiring film subjects of “Step,” they saw their own faces projected on a giant dome at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. Their story of working hard in both the world of step competitions and in the education system had truly become larger than life, the culmination of 400 hours of footage captured by director Amanda Lipitz. The focal step competitors and high school students from the film, Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger and Tayla Solomon were in attendance, along some of the star faculty at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLYSW), Gari "Coach G" McIntyre and Paula Dofat, the school's Director of College Counseling. They'll be the first to tell you that this story is much bigger than step, or just the goal of graduating high school.
I had the opportunity to talk with these five women and ask them about their personal experiences while being in front of the camera, and about their passions. Throughout they referred to each other as family, and talked about helping or supporting others. It was all the more proof that “Step” is going to change the world—by illuminating the art of step, by showing the incredible souls within the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, but especially by presenting so many people who are filled with love and are eager to share it.
Interview with Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger and Tayla Solomon
Was it weird seeing your face presented on a giant dome?
TAYLA SOLOMON: We’re up on there on the big screen, and we’re like, “Whoa. I look like that? I sound like that?" You just notice everything like, "Oh my gosh." But there on the dome we didn’t know where our focus would be. We’re like, “I’m here now. But Blessin is over here.” But that was great. I’ve never seen myself on a dome.
What were your first thoughts seeing "Step" for the first time? I heard you saw with Amanda.
BLESSIN GIRALDO: She was like, “All by ourselves, just us the family. Nobody is gonna see it unless they see it first.”
TS: If you don’t like it, we’ll change it, just tell us what to do. We want you girls to be comfortable, we don’t care what anybody else has to say, as long as you’re comfortable and you agree with the movie and then we can move forward.”
BG: Yeah, I wasn’t really that nervous because she made it clear to us that she cared so much about how we viewed the way she edited our story and portrayed us. Seeing it for the first time for me, I was excited because I look super cool. I look fly, I don’t look that weird in most of the parts, but also because she represented my story really well. So I was pleased with the movie.
CORI GRAINGER: It was a little bit nerve-wracking waiting, you’re watching it but you’re thinking of the rest of the movie. You kind of want to get through it, you wish you just saw the whole plot out. You don’t really know what to expect. But I think everybody was pretty pleased with the way it turned out, and pretty accurately portrayed our experiences, everything that was going on in our lives. All of our lives. 100% of my life is not in the movie, because that’s just not the way it works. But the fact that they were able to portray such real life situations without having a whole view of everything was pretty cool.
We got the general feel for your senior years, compared to how much camera time there was.
[All] 400 hours.
TS: We know the numbers and everything.
She was constantly filming. As someone on the other end of the camera, how did you get used to that?
TS: The crew, we had a great crew. You forget that the cameras were there.
How does that happen?
CG: They’re like our friends, everything that was happening in our lives, we would talk about what’s going on. And they’d ask us, “Do you want to get mic’d today?” Sometimes you don’t want to have your life always on like that. And they respected that, they definitely did. If we didn’t want the camera, they’d say, “OK, that’s fine.” But of course they’re making a documentary, so they’re going to put the camera on someone else, you know?
BG: Or they’d be recording from afar. “I didn’t even know you recorded that!”
CG: “You recorded me? Really?” But, it’s cool.
BG: I would say that the camera was the least of our worries, for one. Because actually, we started off in school together, we ended it together, Amanda is family, we’re one big family, Coach G’s family now, it’s like, “Who are these people coming in trying to film our lives?” She worked really hard on finding, I mean, we didn’t have the same camera crew the entire time. She worked really hard to find the ones who were the best for us and our environment. They would give us advice after a tough scene. They kind of began to care about us, just to know us is to love us. Because we’re so real, we’re so lovable, we’re so genuine, we’re so us. But the cameras were just there, everything else we were focused on: Getting into college, making sure we won the step competition, stuff like that.
So when you have emotional moments or when things aren’t so great, you’re not worried about the cameras? There’s some very powerful, real-life stuff with you in the movie.
TS: Sometimes it was frustrating to have them in your face and all in your business, but a lot of the times you just had to put the frustration aside, which is ignore the cameras as we are doing this for a bigger purpose. It’s bigger than us and it’s bigger than the struggles that we went through. The goal of us is that it’s not important that you go through the struggle, because everybody goes through the struggle. It’s important that you make it through and the make the best of what you’re given, you use the best of your abilities to get through your struggles. And I would say that was our main motivation to ignore the cameras, even in those tough scenes. It’s like, "I’d really prefer for this to not be in the movie, but this is real, it’s genuine and it’s what people all around the world are going through." Our struggles and even our successes are what make it so relatable for people to be able to connect with us or learn from us and share stories.
What was the first moment you loved stepping?
CG: Since sixth grade I was always involved in academics or extra curriculars, so I was on the debate team, I was an ambassador and gave speeches at different events. But step was the first creative extra-curricular that I ever tried. And I hate to dance—there’s definitely a difference between stepping and dance—I didn’t really know how it would turn out, I just tried some auditions and I made it and I ended up loving it.
BG: I fell in love with stepping when I went to an exhibition at HBCU in Baltimore, Morgan State University. I see all these big men and grown ladies up on the stage screaming and stomping and clapping. I’m like, “What are they doing?” But it really had me intrigued with what they were doing because they looked like they were expressing themselves, they felt like they were very passionate about what they were doing. And in elementary school I was always the girl in the gymnasium who was teaching the squad how to do this dance and that dance with the hottest songs. I always figured out I had some type of aspiration for teaching people how to love movement and express themselves through some sort of dance or step. And then, we didn’t have any electives yet at BLSYW because we were part of the founding class, so I was like, “God is telling me something. I don’t know what it is but he’s telling me to get involved and do something about this.” So I went to the principal and she said yes, and then a lot of my sisters supported me throughout that process. We all came in together and we eventually got a coach and it was only up and up from there. And that’s when I fell in love with step, when I realized it had to do with me who I am and how much it taught me about myself as far as discipline, as far as communicating and speaking up for what I believe in. And also appreciating and respecting and continuing to show people to learn about my heritage in Africa and where I come from.
TS: I started to learn and love step when I saw them doing it in the sixth grade. And in ninth grade I was like, “Oh, maybe I should try out.” So then I get on the team and I started to perform it, but I started to love it more when we started to step with a purpose, and a message. And I thought that was more powerful than what we were actually doing. Of course we were stepping, we were loving and enjoying it. But people are entertained, and not only entertained, but educated as well.
BG: Yes, that’s a big part, that’s a huge part. Because a lot of people don’t know about step. They don’t even know what that is. You say step and they say, “Oh, dancing, tap dancing!” It’s like, “No, it’s completely different.” And I think we’re showing people, you can’t blame people for not knowing about it, but now you’re gonna know why we love step and how we use it to express ourselves.
CG: We definitely learned to use step as a platform to express whatever the emotions, whether it be things n politics like with Black Lives Matter movement, and I think that’s what kept us all together. Sixth grade when we first started, it was just something fun that we loved to do. But over the years we’ve really grown as individuals as a team.
And then in the movie when you’re doing the step routine for Black Lives Matter and Freddie Gray, was that a particularly emotional time in your stepping? What were you thinking about?
CG: It’s like a tribute.
TS: We lived it. We had to go through the entire Freddie Gray trial, the verdict, the protests, the riots, the clean-up.
CG: Yeah, he’s actually the brother of a girl who went to the same school as us.
TS: She transferred out. And surprisingly enough, she steps.
CG: We stepped against her at the city majors competition. She’s in the movie!
TS: It definitely meant a lot. Mason and Cori had powerful lines in that tribute, and not only could we relate, the audience could relate. People will support the movement.
BG: It was so important, for us. When Coach G showed us that choreography, I was like, “This is gold.” For one specific reason, because the way that the trial went, after we had no justice. We’re from Baltimore, this is what we go through. We take this very seriously, and now not only to be on a stage where people are forced to look at us and listen to us, we also have a movie and cameras listening to us. We represent way more than this moment. We represent our city, we represent ourselves, we represent Freddie Gray, we’re speaking to the system, we’re speaking about poverty all across the country police brutality, Black Lives Matter. It’s so much more and bigger than step. So you take this opportunity and use this platform, and wear it with pride. I was so proud of us to sit here and become such a loving, creative outlet and become so serious, so strong and so powerful.
And this movie is going to do that. A lot of people have not seen step.
BG: They can’t ignore us anymore.
Is that a pressure? Is that something you think about as well?
BG: We talk to each other all of the time about how important this is to us, and what we want to do with this opportunity.
TS: We all have different goals in life, but the main goal that we do have in common is paying it forward. We definitely want to give back to the community. If no one believed in us, we wouldn’t be here. If we didn’t believe in Amanda, none of this would have happened. If Ms. Dofat and Coach [G] didn’t believe in us, we wouldn’t be in college. We need to support the youth.
BG: It’s not always about the money.
TS: Yeah, it’s definitely not. And one of our former teachers, I’ll never forget, he told us this: He sat us down in class and he said, “When you’re deciding what you want to do in life, don’t think about the money, think about what you would do if money was never involved. Because you could do one thing and money wasn’t involved, you wouldn’t get paid for it if you do it for free. If you could just live your regular life, what would you do?” I think that changed a lot of people’s aspects of how to succeed. A lot of people, well, a lot of parents will tell you, “Oh, be a doctor, be a lawyer. Do this do that. Because this is where the money is.” Even one of our cousins told me, “I need to go to school to be an engineer.” But I’m not good at math. That’s not what I want to do, I don’t think i’d be successful in it, because I don’t have the passion for it. So you have to find the passion and the drive, and just do what you love.
And your passion is—
TS: Sharing it with the world.
Interview with Gari "Coach G" McIntyre and Paula Dofat
Your role in this movie has slightly different stakes than those of the students. You're representing educators and supporters, people who are trying to hold up the next generation. Was it an extra pressure to have cameras on you while you were on the cusp of trying to get these women to succeed?
GARI “COACH G” MCINTYRE: No.
PAULA DOFAT: No, in fact what I think it did was push me to make sure that I stuck to my word. I had every intention of doing that regardless, but even more so I felt like I did not have the room to fail any one of these girls, or to fail this school, this community. I wouldn't say that it was added pressure, but it was like, "We have to show improvement, because that's what we've been doing before the cameras were on, so we want to make sure while they're on that we always continue to do what we always do." So we were just working, and we were grateful to do that.
GM: For me, I didn't know how big this would be. I never thought that I'd be sitting here talking with you today. We had no idea. But I knew that one day it would be a documentary, and my closest friends and family would see it, and I wanted them to be able to see it and say, "That's her." And they can. That's Gari all day. My mother on the other hand, she was just so surprised at how great of a mentor I am. She was like, "I knew you were good, but Jesus Christ!"
PD: My mom drinks my Kool-Aid all the time. She's like, "Girl, I already knew." She has no other Kool-Aid to drink, so it's OK!
GM: My mother definitely came out to see it and supported it, and it was like "Whoa, I want to meet this person!" She said to see me on the big screen was just "Whoa." And she has five kids, so she can't drink all of them.
PD: The whole refrigerator is full of Paula Kool-Aid, there's different colors, all Paula Kool-Aid!
Even when it's just Amanda filming, you get used to it quickly? How did you personally get used to it?
GM: A lot of the times we forgot the cameras was there, and also that was my first time coaching. I was very used to the cameras so the next year, to not have the cameras around and the crew around was kind of weird. Like Paula says, we tripped over a few cords, but we really got along with the driector and the director of photography and the sound.
PD: They became family.
GM: They fell into the bliss.
PD: They drank the BLYSW Kool-Aid. There really is BLYSW Kool-Aid, when you take the position they're like, "And now drink this. Don't worry, it's just colored water" [laughs]. And then bam, you're like, "You know what? I'm going to this girl's house, I don't care what's going on in her home, I'm going to help her." It just kicks in.
What was your own experience watching "Step" for the first time?
GM: "I need to lose weight." I'm just so beautiful! I got a real appreciation of what Ms. Dofat does, and truly got to see, by any means necessary, makes sure she gets these ladies wehre they need to go. And it's not about the trending schools, the hashtag Howards and hashtag Stanfords. And if they give you money, great. But she's like, "Don't come to my office,"--they know the requirements--"If it says Parent PLUS, you can't afford it. You need to figure out something else." And not every counselor has that integrity, has that time, becuase I'm sure she went home many a nights with things to do, and she has four children of her own that are in college. And she holds them to the same standard. So it's not like, "I'm just gonna do all of this for these kids and then my kids are going to go to ..." No. She's like, "Parent PLUS, no!" To truly see her on the big screen, and what she does and how she does it, being with her knowing she does it everyday, but then seeing the process it takes to get there, and seeing how she never gives up and never takes no for an answer, and even when she does hear "No" it's like, "We're gonna figure something out by any means necessary." And not just with those young people in the schools. We're at these screenings and people are asking for advice, she's literally calling schools from the next interview to the next interview. Never a question, never "I'm too tired, there's too much on my plate." We have to move this generation to a different mindset. And that is something that she is truly doing, she's a pioneer of our time and education, she needs to be recognized for that. I LOVE HER on that big screen.
PD: So this is my new publicist. Actually, she's my new cheerleader! I'm gonna put her in my pocket for those moments where I'm like, "Feeling a little down! Gimme something girl!"
G: I feel more passionate about what she does and how she does it. I wish I had one of these.
PD: Before I start crying, and what I would say, not just because she said something nice about me, “Oh, no I gotta something good about you!” [laughs]. When I first saw the movie, I was going through a situation that I just didn’t know if I wanted to do what I was doing anymore, in all honesty. I know it probably sounds crazy to people, but I didn’t know if I was really making the impact that I thought I was making. And when I saw the movie, I was able to see what Gari was doing, which, she and I were working in the same building but I never watched her first-hand. And, when I realized that probably the draining that I feel everyday, I think she probably may feel it triple. And the reason I say that is that I honestly, I really don’t deal with the social, emotional end of the girls. Not in depth like Gari does. So, I may deal with it as it relates to their success plan process, but I didn’t realize that she was dealing with when their lights were getting cut off, if they didn’t have food and how that was going to work out. I didn’t know that she was doing these things, because honestly, I was like, “She’s kind of cool, but she’s just a step coach! OK, she’s doing some routines, we did that in college.” And when I saw that, it kind of renewed my strength and renewed my faith in what was going on, and I realized that I really did have a sister, I really did have an ally, because we had been working together, and we would come together and talk about the girls, but when I realized her heart and her dedication and her passion and what I was doing was just one layer, and she was coming in and solidifying everything that I said, I was like, “I have to say, I have to be here. I have to continue.”
And also, what Gari and I have had the opportunity to discuss, is that it also opened our eyes to every person in that building that does exactly what we do. They come in and what I lay down and what Gari lays down, we have teachers and we have students and support teams and we have principals. And even our cafeteria technician, has been able to make sure that there are girls who are able to eat. It’s a part of the culture of where we are, and seeing my sister do that, because now she really is my sister, it just solidifies some things and helped me through a tough time and will continue to.
GM: I'm watching this movie and I see what she does and know how important it is to have an alumni support coordinator. If I had this school, would I be "Doctor Coach G"?
PD: And you will be Doctor Coach G!
GM: Yes, I will be.
There’s one of many powerful moments where Paula is talking to Blessin about what she must do in order to get into college. As someone trying to do their job while people are filming, how do you keep focus?
PD: The camera was nowhere near me. I think it was the other end of the room, and I was focused on the women and I had a mission. To give you some context for that day, we were less than 30 days from graduation. So, at that point, I didn’t think I cared about the camera, Amanda, or anybody else.
GM: She had just left step practice.
PD: I remember saying, “She’s gotta come!”
GM: Without a doubt. [Blessin] was like, “Coach, I have to leave step practice,” and I was like, “Hmmmm.” Paula said, “Nope, she’s gotta come.” And this was around the time where she was getting over her acting out, because I know that she had realized that “These girls are going to college and have worked hard, do what they’re supposed to do. And now I have not, and now I’m going to be left with not the cream of the crop but the sticky stuff at the bottom, if that. Because it looks like everyone is scraping that up.” And that’s when Superwoman walks in.
To read our interview with director Amanda Lipitz about "Step," click here.
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