The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW, often pronounced “bliss”) is a combined middle school and high school with a predominantly African-American student body, most of whom are from lower-class or middle-class families. It launched in 2008 with just a sixth-grade class, and the 2015–2016 school year will see those girls become its first graduating class. The school has the very ambitious goal of seeing every one of those girls accepted into college.
One of the school’s most popular extracurricular activities is a step dance program, in which the girls shout, stomp, clap, and otherwise, move in a coordinated manner. The girls take it seriously, but they lost all of their competitions in the 2014–2015 school year, and now they have their sights set on winning a regional competition with students from not only Baltimore, but throughout the Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. areas. This documentary focuses on members of that team not only on the dance floor but also in class and in their lives outside of school.
It’s an interesting film, but it suffers from being either too close to the subject matter or intentionally misleading. At no point does it attempt to explain to the audience what stepping is, but that’s understandable because it doesn’t seem to be all that complicated, and because it has been portrayed in other films. But it also does an abysmal job of adequately describing the school. The documentary doesn’t explicitly state that it’s a school for African-American women from low-income families (and it’s not, according to the school’s website), but the film doesn’t make any attempt to show or imply anything else. It may well be that it’s only focused on members of the step dance team and that all of them fit that criteria, but you would think that it might find a few seconds to better describe the school where a substantial amount of the content is set.
Less understandable, though, is that the movie does a really bad job of following the team over the course of the year. We see a lot of practices, and we spend the majority of the time with a few key members of the time, but we don’t see the competitions. The documentary tells us multiple times that they didn’t win any of the competitions from the previous year and implies that there were several of them. But Step only shows us one expo and one competition from the year that it’s actually covering, and not even very much from either one of those. It’s possible that they were so bad in the previous year that they weren’t invited to anything else, or that they did so poorly at those competitions that the footage was omitted, but again, the film should at least make some effort to tell us something. Likewise, the fate of one of the most significant characters until we see it in text tacked on at the very end of the movie.
While the documentary has problems with what it doesn’t show, the things that it does show are strong. It shows many of the challenges that the girls face and it doesn’t see to pull any punches or put its best foot forward for the benefit of the camera. Some of the girls are extraordinary, and others are not. Some of the parents are highly involved, and others are not. Some of the girls make obviously bad choices, but at least they don’t give up. It’s cheesy at times, but ultimately pretty inspirational. I’m clearly not the target audience for the movie, and I don’t care at all about step dancing, but I didn’t have any problems with losing interest over the short 83-minute runtime.