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First Step
STEP's origins began in 2008, long before the school or its high-flying step team even existed. That's when director Amanda Lipitz was among scores of volunteers who helped found the brand new Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. A Baltimore native herself, Lipitz grew up in love with musical theater and entertainment and nurtured her passion at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU before becoming the producer of Broadway's "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" at age 24.

It was through NYU that Lipitz met philanthropist Ann Tisch, who invited her to join the Young Women's Leadership Network, which supports life-changing programs that empower students to break the cycle of poverty through education. The hope in Baltimore was to open the doors to the city's first ever all-female public charter, one that would bring a premiere educational experience to neighborhoods where opportunities for college preparatory programs, especially for girls, have long been thwarted - and raise up a new generation to take on the future with passion, power and purpose.

Seizing on an opportunity to give back to her hometown, Lipitz turned to her mother, longtime women's issues advocate Brenda Brown Rever. Rever was herself a product of Baltimore city schools and knew how many lives could be impacted by creating a Baltimore school that championed young women. Together with about 30 local volunteers, Rever led the movement to open the doors to BLSYW and in 2009 the school offered 120 spots by lottery to the initial class. The school's motto: transforming Baltimore one young woman at a time.

The school began its first year crammed into the third floor of an established Baltimore high school, but by its second year had grown enough to move into its own building, a lovingly renovated YMCA on West Franklin Street in historic Mt. Vernon, just north of downtown. Seven years later, in June of 2016, 60 members of the entering class became the school's maiden graduates. Through the leadership of an amazing faculty and staff - some of whom are featured in STEP - they had together achieved a 100% college acceptance rate, earned more than $800,000 in scholarships and more than half were about to become the very first member of their families to attend college.

In 2009, when the school was still in fledgling stages and the future dreams of its first students were being realized, filming began. At first, the idea was to make a short film to raise awareness of BLSYW's mission. In addition to her award-winning career on Broadway, Lipitz is also an accomplished documentarian who has made more than 30 short films for non-profit organizations.

But the plan for a short film enlarged into a broader vision abruptly one day when two BLSYW girls spontaneously erupted into a rhythmic hand-clapping drill. That's when Lipitz found out that the 6th graders had just started a step team, a group who would become known as the Lethal Ladies of Baltimore (LLOB). They told her, "You have to see us step ... and bring your camera."

Crew in tow, Lipitz attended her first of hundreds of LLOB practices, where she remembers being flat-out mesmerized as she watched the young women she thought she knew transform before her eyes. As they stepped with thrilling abandon, they expressed themselves in a way that was raw and fierce, yet also beautiful, and it knocked her out. They were teenage amateurs for sure, but they were tapping into a dead-on instinct for how to combine music, words, dance and emotion into powerful entertainment.

The film depicts a bigger, broader, more visceral cinematic story, not just about the adult-driven mission of an inner city school but about how these teens were, with their own tenacious spirits, carving out their place in the world. The film depicts a larger than life story, drawing on sisterhood, resilience, discipline, creativity and the urgent call to tell the story of the students' lives and their community.

When producer and documentary veteran Steven Cantor saw a few minutes of footage, he sensed instantly he was witnessing something special. "Amanda showed me a bit of a trailer on her phone at a party saying she wanted to make a documentary," he recalls. "Immediately I said 'wow, let's do this together.' I'm a tough person to pitch a "topic" to, but when I see compelling characters who, as in this case, leap off the screen, I get excited quickly."

Cantor notes that while schools as devoted to their students as BLSYW can seem like "miracle factories," the tougher reality is that many students in economically underprivileged areas don't get such opportunities, which makes the window STEP provides into often invisible lives that much more essential. "When you visit BLSYW, you almost can't believe a place like that exists," describes Cantor. "There's such an exciting, caring yet demanding academic atmosphere. Ann Tisch and her Young Women's Leadership Network have started a number of these schools and the success stories they regularly engender almost boggle the mind. But even at BLSYW, things were touch and go for a while for some of the students, especially Blessin. You see how easily any of these kids could fall through the cracks. "

Attracting a team of high-powered executive producers and financiers, the film kept going. Cantor especially credits Tisch, without whom BLSYW wouldn't exist at all, and philanthropist and documentary legend, Geralyn Dreyfous, (BORN INTO BROTHELS, THE SQUARE, MONEY MONSTER) of Impact Partners for their early and steadfast commitment to the film. "They were lock-step alongside Amanda and me in our early efforts to get the film made and there was a palpable sense that they would make sure we got to the finish line one way or another," says Cantor.

Another early supporter was Scott Rudin, who also responded favorably to early footage and throughout the process provided Amanda and Steven with sage guidance and helpful creative notes.


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