Among her theatre industry friends and colleagues, Amanda Lipitz is primarily known as a producer, with a Broadway résumé that includes Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Legally Blonde The Musical, The Performers, A View From the Bridge, and the Tony-winning The Humans. But Lipitz has another, lesser-known side: she’s also documentary filmmaker.
Parallel to her career on Broadway, Lipitz has been making short documentary films about a group of all-girl public schools in New York City and Baltimore. Now, with the release of her feature film debut Step, in cinemas nationally with Fox Searchlight, Lipitz’s filmmaking is no longer her best-kept secret. The movie, which follows a group of dancers in their senior year at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, was a Sundance favorite, has been called “one of the best movies of the year” by Entertainment Weekly, and is already being heralded by critics as an Oscar contender.
Lipitz is Baltimore-born and raised. When her mother, who has been a local activist there since Lipitz was a child, founded the Baltimore Young Women’s Leadership School, she recruited her daughter to make promotional videos for the school. While working as a producer in New York, Lipitz would travel home to Baltimore on weekends and make short documentary pieces about the staff and students. “I think a lot of my Broadway world didn’t really understand this other side that I was working on,” says Lipitz, who recalls running from Brooklynite rehearsals with Michael Mayer—who would ask her quizzically “Sorry, what are you shooting?”—to filming in Baltimore.
While making these short reels, Lipitz began forming friendships with some of the students and their families. One of the girls, ninth-grader Blessin Giraldo, asked Lipitz to come and film the school’s step group, The Lethal Ladies of BLSYW. Lipitz knew very little about step—a dance form steeped in African-American culture, using a combination of choreographed footsteps, claps, and the spoken word. But from the minute she saw the group, she knew she’d stumbled upon something special.
“When I walked in and saw them stepping, it was like a musical to me,” says Lipitz. “It’s what happens in a great musical: when a character cannot speak anymore so they have to express their fears, hopes, and dreams through song and dance.” Lipitz began filming the step group on a regular basis and the idea for a documentary materialized.
Then during the girls’ senior year, in 2015, the death of Freddie Gray shocked and devastated the Baltimore community. As violent riots unfurled, Lipitz’s film was suddenly imbued with an entirely new sense of purpose and urgency. “The finish line moved for all of us,” says Lipitz. “We wanted to change the conversation about Baltimore in a bigger way.”
Lipitz cut a trailer, opening with footage of the riots, and showed it to two industry connections: Broadway heavy weight Scott Rudin and Oscar-nominated documentary producer Steven Cantor. Both signed on to back the film straight away. Then Lipitz made a bold move: She decided to discard most of her original footage and start over—using the girls’ senior year as a through line for the film. “Like a good musical it has a beginning, a middle, and an end,” she explains.
Her decision to center the documentary around the students’ senior year means that Step is not just a film about dance, it’s the story of young women on the brink of change, about a group of teenagers supporting each other. There’s the charming Giraldo, the founder of the step team, whose slipping attendance record threatens her graduation. There’s the impossibly intelligent Cori Grainger, who dreams of affording college even as the lights are cut off at home. There’s Tayla Solomon, whose mother watches every step meet and teaches the girls about sisterhood and loyalty. And then there are the other dancers, the mothers, the teachers, the coach, and the guidance counselor, who all make Step the inspiring and uplifting tale that it is.
It’s the women of Step who give the film its power, and that includes Lipitz. The love and support—the relationships—drive the film from the beginning to end. “I put the girls on the step team above my filmmaking and above the documentary,” says Lipitz. “The film was always secondary.”
Step is now in cinemas. Flip through photos from the film and watch the trailer below: