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Indigenous students prepare for Toronto dance showcase 

Arts and EntertainmentIndigenous students prepare for Toronto dance showcase 

175 Indigenous students from across Canada have traveled to the County of Brant for their final week of dance rehearsals before the 17th annual Outside Looking In Showcase in Toronto on Friday, May 10, 2024.

Founded by Tracee Smith in 2007, Outside Looking In (OLI) is a nationally registered charitable organization that works to empower Indigenous youth through the art of dance.

The accredited high school programs encourage students to complete their education, increase their mental and physical health, and engage in self-expression.

“Our goal is really to get Indigenous kids to graduate from high school, and so these dance programs are for-credit,” said Hope Sanderson, CEO of OLI. “In Canada, the high school graduation rate for Indigenous youth is currently sitting at 63 per cent and for those living on-reserve, that number is only 46 per cent. With the help of OLI, 96 per cent of our participants are going ahead to graduate high school.”

Sanderson, a Métis woman herself, said that since taking on the role of CEO this past year, she’s tried to keep one quote in mind as she navigates her new role.

“When Louis Riel was being hung, he said, ‘My people will sleep for 100 years, and when they wake, it is the artists who will give them their spirit back,”” she said. “I think we all can relate to that, and personally, I’m taking Louis’ message to heart as I lead this arts organization.”

Students work on the collaborative closing performance for the upcoming 17th annual Outside Looking In Showcase during their rehearsals on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.

Designed to be a creative method to support academic success, the grade seven to 12 students that are participating in the OLI Dance program are required to maintain a 60 per cent grade point average and a 70 per cent attendance level, as well as, they have to demonstrate their commitment to developing performance skills. 

To take it a step further, the grade ten to 12 students who have already completed at least one year of OLI Dance, also have the opportunity to join the for-credit RBC Future Leaders program. Those who participate are required to maintain a 70 per cent grade point average and an 80 per cent attendance level. 

“To be in Future Leaders they also have to be enrolled with the regular OLI Dance, and so for those kids who are in both, that means they’re out three or four nights a week rehearsing,” said Sanderson. “When you’re that involved, it really helps to keep them focused in a healthy outlet, rather than some of the negative distractions that our kids may be faced within the remote communities.”

For the past eight months, students from 14 Inuit, Métis and First Nation communities (both remote and urban) have been working alongside professional choreographers, educators, and volunteers to put together a hip-hop dance routine for their upcoming showcase.

The students have now traveled to the County of Brant to participate in their annual dance camp for the final week of rehearsals before heading off to Toronto’s Meridian Hall on May 10.

Several students work on one of the community performances for the upcoming 17th annual Outside Looking In Showcase during their rehearsals on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.

Vanessa Ip, an OLI Chaperone and teacher in Pikangikum First Nation, said that the whole experience is all about helping the youth find more confidence in themselves and their abilities. 

“I think that this event is so important because it’s given these students who don’t typically get a chance to shine, that space where it’s all about them and their accomplishments,” she said. “It’s teaching them that when you commit to work on something for a long period of time, it can get you where you want to go. It’s building that resilience and perseverance, and it’s just creating a space where they can be creative and feel supported. Also, for a lot of our kids from those remote areas, it could be their first time leaving their community and taking the step into the big city and it’s a huge opportunity for them. 

For this year’s big showcase, the overall theme is “leave your mark” and producers Tamara Podemski and Emma Jaconello have been hard at work to bring the two-performance showcase an exhilarating twist. 

“The style as always is mostly hip hop, but this year, the choreographers have been encouraged to include cultural elements in some of the dances,” said Ip. “So if you happen to buy tickets and attend the showcase you’ll likely catch some Pow wow footwork, or other cultural references embedded into the choreography which has been super fun for our kids to have.”

Students rehearse one of the many dance numbers for the Outside Looking in Showcase on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.

The show will also feature performances by several Indigenous musicians who will join the students on stage such as: JUNO Award-nominated musical group Nimkii & the Niniis; the Indigenous band STOiK, known for their fusion of EDM and traditional Indigenous music; the award-winning Ojibway Cree hip-hop artist and producer Plex; CBC Trailblazer Award recipient, Jah’kota; and Kanien’kehà:ka (Mohawk) pop electro-RnB songwriter, producer, and multidisciplinary artist Semiah Smith.

As well, Windigo Army, an Indigenous street art and activist collective from Chippewas of Rama First Nation, will be featuring several art pieces throughout the show as well as custom flags representing each of the 14 Indigenous communities in the showcase.

Hosiah Turtle, a 19-year-old from Pikangikum First Nation, ON, has been part of the OLI Dance program for three years now, and the student said that he was most looking forward to seeing how the show would look once it’s on stage.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing how it turns out because it’s been a bit different this year,” he said. “Two years ago, we didn’t really have transitions between dances, so I like that we’ve been incorporating more of that this year. It’s a lot of work but I’m excited to share our story.”

Dancers work on cleaning up and synchronizing their routine during the Outside Looking in Showcase rehearsal on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.

For Future Leader student, Madi Ottertail, an 18-year-old from Gakijiwanong Anishinaabe Nation, ON, 2024 marks her sixth year participating in the OLI Dance program, and the youth is looking forward to the big showcase.

“I really enjoy working as a team throughout the whole year, but I also like actually getting to Toronto,” she said. “It’s so close to the finish line and I’m really looking forward to finally showcasing what we did all year, and how hard we worked.”

Ottertail said that one of the best parts of the whole program is getting to meet other people from different communities and seeing what they’ve put together.

“It’s very social, you know? I’m here with the students from my community, but then there’s other communities that we get to dance with and interact with,” she said. “It’s really interesting how everything goes together, and I enjoy watching the other communities do their own dances too.”

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