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Md. Teens' 'Step' Journey Unfolds Amid Aftermath Of Freddie Gray's Death


And we're going to step it up a notch here. The words high energy - I mean, what an understatement when we're talking about this group of girls at a Baltimore high school. Their step performances feature stomping, clapping, chanting.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Chanting) Let's, let's, let's, let's, let's get this step a-started.

LETHAL LADIES OF BLSYW: Right - woo (ph).


GREENE: A new documentary about these young women called "Step" opens tomorrow. It traces the journey through the step team's final year of high school. Here's NPR's Mandalit del Barco.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The Lethal Ladies of BLSYW step team are the stars of this documentary. We see the LLOB looking beautiful and fierce, rehearsing, competing and representing the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, a charter high school that promises to send every one of its low-income students to college.


LETHAL LADIES OF BLSYW: (Chanting) We are the show takers, hip-hoppers (ph), hard rockers. We are the showstoppers - wanted all over the city and still sitting pretty.


DEL BARCO: The film chronicles the stories of three of the step dancers who were in the school's first graduating class. Blessin Giraldo is the team's gregarious and animated captain.


BLESSIN GIRALDO: I'm always the one like, boom, tap, tap - boom, tap, tap - like, with my mouth. That's how I remember steps.

DEL BARCO: She created the step team on her own when she was just 11 years old. The documentary shows her working hard to improve her high school grades and living with a mother who suffers from depression and anger.


GIRALDO: Sometimes I feel like I just go somewhere else when I step.


GIRALDO: It's like therapy a little bit.


GIRALDO: Like, you up there screaming and yelling and faces and mugging and stepping. Like, you just stomping your life away, throwing your head everywhere. You clapping, got all your friends around, you know? Just, like - we making music with our bodies. Like, that's some slick stuff. It's lit though, ain't it? It's lit.

DEL BARCO: Giraldo's step teammates have their own struggles. Cori Grainger talks about once being homeless. In one scene, she sits on the porch of her house in which the electricity was shut off.


CORI GRAINGER: My stepdad just lost his job, and it's, like, bills and bills and bills and bills.

DEL BARCO: The film celebrates the steppers' mothers, who support them. Tayla Solomon's mom is a corrections officer who has her back. The film also salutes the mentors, including their passionate college counselor, and their tenacious coach, Geri McIntyre. She says stepping is more than an art form that came from Africa through the slave trade and was popularized on black college campuses.


GERI MCINTYRE: It's about not making excuses, making sacrifices, having a positive attitude. I know it gets tough. We're in Baltimore City. They come home to no lights, come home to violence in their neighborhood, not having food in the refrigerator, not having a refrigerator at all.

DEL BARCO: Coach G lived on the same street as Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American who died while in police custody in 2015. There were riots after his funeral, and the three officers tried for his death were acquitted. The film has footage of the fallout, including the step routine the ladies created to honor the Black Lives Matter movement.


LETHAL LADIES OF BLSYW: (Chanting) Hands up, don't shoot. Say it loud. I'm black, and I'm proud.


DEL BARCO: The film's director and producer Amanda Lipitz also grew up in Baltimore. She's known the steppers since they were 11 years old.

AMANDA LIPITZ: And when they stand up - these beautiful, smart, capable, put-together young women - and they stand up there and they say it could have been us - we were already filming the documentary when Freddie Gray was killed. We already wanted to change the conversation about Baltimore. So that just really turned the flame up.

DEL BARCO: Lipitz is a Tony-winning Broadway producer. She began making short films about the students at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, the school her mother founded. Lipitz says she immediately clicked with Blessin Giraldo, who invited her to film the team.

LIPITZ: You know, I was always kind of, like, inspired by Blessin. And...


LIPITZ: I was always inspired by you. And I walked in, and she had everybody lined up, ready to go. That year, they didn't really have a coach, so she was kind of doing all the choreography. They started to step, and I thought, oh, my God. This is what happens in a great musical.


LETHAL LADIES OF BLSYW: (Chanting) Let's get it started.


LETHAL LADIES OF BLSYW: (Chanting) Hey, hey, hey.

DEL BARCO: A lot has happened since "Step" premiered as an independent movie at the Sundance Film Festival last winter. Fox Searchlight acquired the film and remake rights for $4 million in a bidding war. That same week, the team led the Women's March in Park City, and they performed for snowbound movie lovers.


LETHAL LADIES OF BLSYW: (Chanting) Our motto is when they go low, we go high.


LETHAL LADIES OF BLSYW: (Chanting) Raise our standards to the sky.


DEL BARCO: A few months later, the team performed in New York during an event celebrating college-bound students. Tayla Solomon, now a student at Alabama A&M, says that's where they met former First Lady Michelle Obama.

TAYLA SOLOMON: She hugged us. And she smells really, really nice. And she's everything you expect Michelle Obama to be. And she touched my shoulder when we took the picture. And when she walked in, it was like we knew her and she knew us. And she actually posted on her Instagram and her Twitter a picture of us from when we met her and supporting the movie.

DEL BARCO: Solomon, Grainger and Giraldo also performed at the Essence Festival in New Orleans. And they were featured in a photo shoot and video for Vogue magazine. They'll soon appear on the TV show "So You Think You Can Dance."


DEL BARCO: Blessin Giraldo is 18 now and studies at Coppin State University. She has big dreams of being a graphic designer, a business and communications mogul and more.

GIRALDO: I plan on having a Broadway debut sometime soon, in the next few years, hopefully. I do plan on being on the big screen again. And I found a new passion of mine, which is speaking to the youth and encouraging them to do great. And also, I'll be writing a book that'll be released in about two years.

DEL BARCO: What (laughter)? All that?

GIRALDO: Yes, ma'am.

DEL BARCO: Over the past few months, Giraldo and her teammates have been touring the country, talking to young people and promoting the documentary. After talking to NPR, they were heading to New York, where they were super excited to see themselves on a billboard in Times Square.

GIRALDO: (Singing) Yeah.



DEL BARCO: The Lethal Ladies of BLSYW are already blowing up, even before their documentary steps into the big screen this weekend. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.


LETHAL LADIES OF BLSYW: (Chanting) Say it loud. I'm black and I'm proud.


JAMES BROWN: (Singing) With your bad self - say it loud. I'm black and I'm proud.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, we said it was Tayla Solomon who realized her dream of getting into Johns Hopkins University. In fact, it was Cori Grainger who did that. ] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 3, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
In an earlier version of this story, we said it was Tayla Solomon who realized her dream of getting into Johns Hopkins University. In fact, it was Cori Grainger who did that.
As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition,, and