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How a dance program is encouraging Indigenous youth to complete high school


A national dance program focused on empowering Indigenous youth to complete their high school education is putting the final touches on routines before a major performance in Toronto.

Outside Looking In launched 17 years ago, and has expanded into Indigenous communities across the country. This week, 175 dancers from all over are at their annual dance camp in Brant County to perfect their routines ahead of their major showcase at Toronto’s Meridian Hall.

“This is an opportunity for us to level the playing field and to give our Indigenous kids a step up in being able to compete with their peers in Canada,” Hope Sanderson, CEO of Outside Looking In, said.

“I think dance is really the hook, right? The kids want to be in the program and they know they need to go to school. One of the biggest issues facing Indigenous youth in our communities – in all Indigenous communities – is getting the kids to come back through the doors of school and to stay consistently. There’s so many other distractions and social barriers.”

Youth from Outside Looking In rehearse their dance routines in Brant County on April 30, 2024. (Stefanie Davis/CTV Kitchener)

Throughout the school year, choreographers and dancers visit the kids’ respective communities to teach them routines. The program has certain academic requirements that students have to meet in order to stay involved.

“The on-reserve graduation rate is about 46 per cent. The Canadian national mainstream rate is 91 per cent, and Outside Looking In has a 96 per cent graduation rate,” Sanderson explained.

Youth from Outside Looking In rehearse their dance routines in Brant County on April 30, 2024. (Stefanie Davis/CTV Kitchener)

The program mainly focuses on hip hop routines, because it doesn’t require specific studio space or equipment.

“We’re starting to incorporate more Indigenous cultural dance into the formations and even into the music,” Sanderson said.

There are a variety of reasons why students get intrigued to try the program, and many stay involved for several years.

“I wanted to feel comfortable with myself as I was facing a lot of bullying because of how my body looked because I have scoliosis,” 19-year-old Hosiah Turtle said.

Turtle has been part of the program for three years.

Madi Ottertail, who has been involved for six years, said she heard about it through older friends and wanted to give it a try.

“I like dance because it gets me moving, but it’s also a fun way to express yourself,” Ottertail said.

With a few days left until they travel into Toronto, the dancers say they have mixed feelings.

“This year I’m very confident in myself,” Turtle said.

“I’m very, very excited and kind of nervous for the show.”

Two shows will be held at Toronto’s Meridian Hall on May 10 at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Top Stories

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