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The Power of Step as Community Uplift

Photo: FOX Searchlight

On Friday, August 18, 2017 I participated in a panel discussion for the film screening of STEP at the Little Theater in Rochester, New York. It was being shown as a part of the Black Cinema Series at the theater in conjunction with the Rochester Association of Black Journalists (RABJ). The film follows the The Lethal Ladies of Baltimore girls step team of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, through the lens of the three seniors on the team - Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger, and Tayla Solomon. We see the successes and the failures of the step team itself and these three young Black women as they go through a journey of self discovery and preparation for the next chapter of their lives.

The bottom line is that this movie was "lit!" There is no other word that gives proper justice to what the audience experiences with this film. I was taken through a litany of emotions that I was not altogether prepared for, but that I am glad I was given the opportunity to have. My eyes watered in several of the scenes, especially where the young women exhibited their resilience when it seemed like obstacles with school and team cohesiveness threatened to be their undoing.

At the center of everything the team and the three featured young ladies went through was step. Stepping, of course, originated in much of the form we inherit today during the mid-twentieth century with Historically Black-intercollegiate Greek-lettered fraternities and sororities. Stepping was birthed out of African dance, military style formations, and the rituals and chants of the Black fraternities and sororities. As a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., the film especially resonated with me because it reminded me of the camaraderie me and my line brothers shared. Additionally, it reminded me of the emotions and sense of urgency behind striving toward a unified goal greater than individual accomplishment.

I believe that the film accurately portrays the power that step has and can have in the lives of our young people. The panel, which consisted of four members of Black fraternities and sororities (three members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and one member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc.), discussed the history of the use of step to influence and mentor the youth in the Rochester community.

One of the former students, who benefited from the fraternities and sororities coming into the school system to teach step and prepare students for citywide competition, is holding the microphone and speaking in the picture to the left (second person from the right). He discussed, with many of the audience members who knew the history, along with the moderator of the discussion (not pictured), who was a key figure in the initiative at its peak, how it was far more than step. It was about mentoring and academic support, as much as learning a particular routine. It was heartwarming to not only see this depicted in STEP, but to also hear first hand from those involved how a tremendous impact was had in this community that I have been a part for the past few years.

The step coach to the young women in STEP, Coach G, who is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., demonstrates that direct mentoring, as she is tough at times when the girls need it, and is there to cry with them when it is necessary. This versatility is what mentoring is all about. At every moment of the film it was clear that she was more than just someone there to teach them steps to go win competitions, which they do end up doing. In addition, Paula Dofat, who is the school's college counselor is amazing at what she does. If you ever needed an example of what it means to truly advocate for the children that are entrusted to your care, she is it! There is one scene in the film that involves one of the seniors, Blessin. She is interviewing, with Ms. Dofat there to support, to be accepted into the Bridge Edu program that would help her get into college. When the interview is done, Blessin leaves the room, but Ms Dofat stays behind and breaks down in tears advocating for Blessin's admission into the program. This was a incredible moment, where I don't believe their was a dry eye in the house. This typified what this community and film was all about.

In the backdrop of all of this, as much of the the film takes place in 2015, is the death of Freddie Gray, who died from spinal damage while in police custody. They step team actually has a routine at one of their first competitions we are shown that centers on honoring Black lives. It is powerful and relevant. In the lead up to the performance they have a moment with Coach G where they express their dissatisfaction with the way the national media portrayed the city, their community, and Black people generally. It was difficult to see them come to the understanding that the media will not always present people or communities in the most positive light if it doesn't fit their narrative or boost ratings. At the same time, they were determined to write their own narrative regardless of what is being portrayed about them.

STEP concludes on the highest of notes by showing us not only the success the team has in winning their final competition, but showing us where the three seniors end up. Blessin, who possesses incredible charisma and captures every scene that she is in, is accepted into the Bridge Edu program and is able to begin at Historically Black Coppin State University. It is emotional to see her trajectory, as there were moments where it seemed as though the burdens on her were going to be too much. You find yourself rooting for her the entire time, and when she accomplishes her goal, you can't help but applaud! Tayla, who we get to see along with her highly involved and enthusiastic mother, is accepted and we last see moving into Historically Black Alabama A & M University. Lastly, Cori, who is the straight A student and more introverted, receives five full ride scholarships and decides to attend John Hopkins University. In a truly inspiring scene with her mother, after receiving her acceptance letter and notice of scholarship, she expresses something along the lines of not knowing John Hopkins was a place for her. Her mom tells her that she is breaking the mold. This scene is beautiful! The moment is brilliantly captured and it once again brought our audience to tears and awe

I believe STEP is a film and story that we need, especially in the times that we are in. We are inundated with negative images and news that threatens to rob us of our very soul and humanity. This film features the story of Black girls on a mission. With step as a tool for them to help accomplish their goals, their story helps us to take a close look at ourselves and our communities. We have a responsibility to our young people to mentor and guide them along the way to their success!

I love this film and I know you will too!

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