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Toronto dance program aims to keep Indigenous youth in school

Outside Looking In founder Tracee Smith, a member of the Missanabie Cree First Nation, started the program after realizing kids were dropping out of school simply from lack of motivation.

Students participating in dance rehearsals at Brantford training camp ahead of the big performance in Toronto this week.

Photos courtesy: Keesic Douglas

Students participating in dance rehearsals at Brantford training camp ahead of the big performance in Toronto this week.

There’s a special group of performers coming to the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts this week.

It’s made up of nearly 80 young dancers from Indigenous communities across the country, many of whom would have probably dropped out of school had they not found a motivator.

That’s right. As dropout rates among Indigenous schools continue to be high – a report from the C.D. Howe Institute last year showed only four out of 10 youth living on reserves were finishing high school – an initiative started in Toronto uses dance classes to keep kids in school.

Outside Looking In founder and professional dancer Tracee Smith, a member of the Missanabie Cree First Nation, started the program after realizing kids were dropping out of school simply from lack of motivation.

“Dance and music are very big in our culture,” she said Sunday from a training camp in Brantford, where she was helping the kids go through rehearsals for the big show. “It resonates with them and gives them a reason to come back to school and actually stay focused.”

Reasons for dropping out vary, said Smith. Many parents went to residential schools and don’t have good memories to pass on to their kids. There’s a lack of resources in Indigenous communities to properly support good education. Parents themselves may have dropped out, and so school isn’t a priority for their families.

Through this dance program, students who get good grades and good attendance are rewarded with a trip to Toronto to perform live on stage, something Smith described as a dream to some of these kids.

“It’s like an alternative to organized sports,” she said, noting the program boosts the kids’ confidence by being physically fit and mentally focused. “They hit the big stage and see the audience clapping for them, which makes them realize that they’re actually talented.”

See the show:

  • This year’s Outside Looking In performance will take place this Thursday at Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, starting 7:30 p.m. More information can be found at olishow.com

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