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Theatre & Performance ‘I dance to relieve stress, and to elevate myself’: For Indigenous youth, ambitions soar at performance program

Serena Harper, foreground, watches Outside Looking In members rehearse. The program offers high-school accredited dance instruction for Indigenous youth from across Canada.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

At a peaceful, pond-set youth camp west of Toronto, the sound of a pop song about confidence spreads out over 400 rolling acres of pasture and wetlands. The music comes from inside a barn at Tim Horton Onondaga Farms, where about 120 Indigenous students from Manitoba, Nunavut and Northern Ontario work on an urban dance performance. “You’re here for a reason," the blasting melodic song by American pop artist Noah Kahan goes, “but you don’t know why.”

The kids, teenagers, do know why though. They’ve worked the school-year long in a program, Outside Looking In, that culminates in a pair of performances at Toronto’s Sony Centre on May 23. Founded in 2007, Outside Looking In is a not-for-profit organization that has created a Ministry of Education-accredited dance program – mostly in hip hop and urban dance – to encourage self-esteem and empowerment for Indigenous youth. OLI’s stated goal is to reduce the high school drop out rate of Indigenous youth, while teaching the importance of transferable life skills.

Those students who highly achieve during their two semesters in their own community schools are invited to rehearse as a collective at Onondaga Farms before the show at the 3,191-seat Sony Centre. Returning from a lunch break at the retreat, each student does a set of push-ups before taking to the dance floor. After an hour of intense practice, there’s a short break and a run on the stash of bananas on hand. This is something akin to Fame on a farm.

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“The higher the bar goes, the harder the kids work and the harder they want to push the bar themselves,” says program manager Maureen Hatherley. “It’s not good enough to just show up. You have to achieve."

Choreographer Nino Vicente acts as a mentor and teacher to the youth. The students are often introverts at school, but here they joyously light up while showing off their moves – mostly hip hop and urban dance.

Melissa Tait

Hatherley and the Outside Looking In choreographers will tell you that the students who participate in the program are often the introverts – the ones who walk in school hallways with their heads down, avoiding eye contact. Indeed, some of the students who spoke to The Globe and Mail were shy during an interview, only to light up joyously while showing off their moves in front of our video cameras.

The instant blossoming goes a long way in explaining the transformative nature of dance, while providing a persuasive argument for the worth of dance instruction. The Globe spoke to four students about their relationship with dance in general, and their experience with Outside Looking In in particular.

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Bradley Monias, age 19, from St. Theresa Point First Nation, Man.; studying at University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg

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MELISSA TAIT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Before Outside Looking In, dance was a hobby, something impromptu. Now it’s more technical. It’s part of me, a form of expression. I see dance as a way to alleviate your troubles, or the fog in your head, and to just let it all out on the dance floor. To get to this part of the program, you have to show you want it. It begins in the fall. People drop out along the way. There’s 114 youth dancing on stage in Toronto. Those people showed a willingness to commit. That’s why I’m here.

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Jaydin Nungaq, age 16, from Iqaluit, Nunavut; studying at Inuksuk High School:

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MELISSA TAIT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

I dance to relieve stress, and to elevate myself. I prefer hip hop or pop music, or anything that brings up my spirit. My favourite artist is the American rapper Logic. His music gets into my head, whether it’s happy or sad or deep. It’s catchy. The performance at Sony Centre feels like a big opportunity for me. It’s possible professional choreographers will be in the audience. How one sticks out is to show enjoyment. I’m talking about genuine happiness. I’m talking about a smile on your face, no matter how tired you are. You feel the energy to keep going.

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Serena Harper, age 15, from Wasagamack First Nation, Man.; studying at George Knott high school

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MELISSA TAIT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

This is my first year in the program. I never thought I’d be into dancing. But I wanted to try something new. Maybe I’d love it; maybe I’d hate it. Up to this point it’s all been instruction, in a small group. The show at Sony Centre is a different level. I’m not used to a lot of people. It’s nerve-wracking, but also exciting. That being said, dance calms me. When I’m upset, I dance. When anything is bugging me, I dance. I intend to stay with this program. I see dance as a possible career. I enjoy it that much.

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Brayden McDougall, age 14, from St. Theresa Point First Nation, Man.; studying at St. Theresa Point School

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MELISSA TAIT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

In addition to the hip-hop dance with Outside Looking In, I also do square dance. I like the routine of it. I like the feeling of dancing with people and in front of people. Outside Looking In, though, helps me with my self-esteem. It makes me work harder that usual. Last year, I didn’t make it. I got sick and didn’t complete the program. I like the music of [Danish soul-pop band] Lukas Graham. It’s not hip hop, but you can dance to it. Yesterday all the different groups got together to show each other our dance pieces. We taught each other our steps, I enjoyed that, and it makes me feel like I want to keep with it.

Grade 9 student Marena Wood dances with her classmates from St. Theresa Point, Man., during the Outside Looking In rehearsal at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts on May 22.

Shelby Lisk/The Globe and Mail

Outside Looking In: Indigenous Youth Dance is at Toronto’s Sony Centre for the Performing Arts on May 23 (11 a.m. and 7 p.m.).

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