Dance is a vehicle for individual expression, celebration of spirituality, history and culture, and is especially significant for many Indigenous communities around the world. For many people, dance is a way to let loose and have fun, an outlet for creativity and promotes a peaceful state of mind. While the physical benefits are evident, dancing can also drastically improve a person’s mental well-being, better preparing them socially and academically for everyday life.

Outside Looking In (OLI) is a Canada-wide high school credit dance program created for Indigenous students in grades 7 through 12. The program was founded in 2007 by CEO Tracee Smith, who had been running casual dance classes for children on reserves in Ontario for several years. She realized the dance program was having a significant positive impact on the youth participants and the communities as a whole, and believed a longer-term program could help boost the graduation rates of Indigenous students.

OLI introduces students to modern dance styles, like hip hop and contemporary dance. Given the high success rate of the program, with inspiring stories coming out of Nova Scotia, Ontario, Manitoba and Nunavut, it’s safe to say this program is changing lives, and its long-term commitment to the development of youth is a key component to that success.

Since its inception, over 96.2% of the students who have gone through the program have earned their high school diplomas, a truly remarkable statistic when compared to the national average high school graduation rate of 36% for Indigenous students.

As OLI’s mission states, through the transformative art of dance, Indigenous youth are inspired to pursue education, engage in self-expression and celebrate empowerment. This is the OLI Effect.

The OLI Effect

Contemporary dancer Cody Berry from Lac La Croix First Nation (Ontario).

Smith, who is from the Missanabie Cree First Nation in Ontario, knows first-hand how important it is for young people to have access to creative outlets. “I’ve danced my whole life; I knew how transformative dance could be,” Smith said in a recent interview with the Winnipeg Free Press, adding “students begin to exercise more, eat healthier foods and become more invested in academics once they join OLI.”

This long-term intensive dance program aims to empower young people, giving them the opportunity to engage in regular physical activity and self-expression through dance, and to showcase their talents at the annual event culminating at Toronto’s Meridian Hall, Canada’s largest soft-seat theatre. The multi-media gathering, which normally takes place each spring, is an experience that gives “Canadians have an opportunity to look inside Indigenous communities while the Indigenous youth (approximately 200 OLI participants) get to see beyond theirs,” said Smith.

In order for students to earn their credit, students must attend their dance classes regular- ly and attend all rehearsals, but more importantly, students must demonstrate progress and good attendance in their academics.

OLI’s Future Leaders program is the next phase for youth wanting to pursue challenges beyond the regular OLI dance program. A credit program also, it focuses on career education, leadership development and mentorship. Future Leaders helps prepare youth for “next steps” beyond graduation by building personal management and employability skills. Through work experience and on-going mentorship, youth learn to identify opportunities, grow their supportive networks and contribute to the community. Those enrolled in the Future Leaders program also attend a week-long leadership forum and perform a separate routine at the showcase in Toronto.

The ripple effect of OLI in communities across the country has been profound, with participants encouraging their peers and siblings to join, and then becoming program leaders and mentors themselves. Even volunteers have greatly benefited from the program, like Nathan Knott, an Education Assistant at George Knott School in Wasagamack First Nation (Manitoba). Knott is the lead volunteer for OLI at the school and has been involved since the program began in the community three years ago. From dancing and warming up with the youth, he lost close to 40 pounds in his first year leading OLI. Jaydin Nungag of Inuksuk High School in Iqaluit (Nunavut) began his journey with OLI during the second term last year. He was extremely shy and introverted when he started, but now he is a confident Future Leader and loves teaching dance to others.

One of the most exciting stories comes from Lac La Croix First Nation (Ontario). Cody Berry was one of five dancers in the very first year of OLI in 2008, and not only did he graduate high school but he is now a thriving professional contemporary dancer residing in Toronto, Ontario. His younger sister Rija-Jean, currently in grade 10, is following in his footsteps. She is in her third year of OLI and her first year as a Future Leader.

Outside Looking In is a nationally registered charitable organization. For more information, visit