Outside Looking In is a national organization that offers an accredited dance program to Indigenous youth who earn a high school credit for participating. On May 18th, eighty-six OLI students will give the performances of their lives in front of crowds of over 6,000. We chatted with Tracee Smith, Founder and CEO of OLI.

SDTC: How did you found OLI?

TS: I’ve danced my whole life. I’m half-Aboriginal, half-white. I used to get asked to go to different reserves to teach kids dance. I once went up to an isolated community in Northern Ontario to teach kids dance for a week. Combined with the fact that Indigenous kids have such high rate of dropping out of school, I thought there is maybe something I can do where we can design a program that keeps them in school and keeps them motivated to come back to school. That was my motivation to start this organization.

How long does the program run?

It’s an academic year. We go into communities over the course of seven months, every three weeks. We send in a choreographer, they work with the kids for a week every day. When we’re not there, they’re practicing with their teachers or volunteers. When we go back again, we add on to that routine. So by the time April rolls around, they have a full-on dance routine that they’ve perfected.

What have you learned from them?

A lot of people going into these communities have preconceived notions of what these kids can achieve. What we’ve learned is that if we keep setting the bar high with these kids, they will [reach] it.

You see kids who have gone through some very traumatic life experiences. There was one who lost his sister; he comes from a family of ten kids, he’s the oldest. His dad got into an accident and is in a coma. For the last four months, he has been the parent, essentially. He was about to drop out of school. He said, “I was just about to throw it all away.” Because he couldn’t handle it. But he did. He stuck to it. He’s in our program performing in the show. It’s amazing to see how resilient the kids are in the face of challenging times in their lives.

What do you want people to know about this organization?

What a lot of Canadians see about Indigenous people is such a small part of our community. There are amazingly talented people. Aboriginal people aren’t all troubled — like how the media try to construe. They don’t need us to come rescue them. This program is about making the next leaders of these communities. They’re the ones going to college, to university. They’re the next political leaders, they’re the ones making a change in their communities. It’s a program for kids who want more and who want to see a positive change in their communities. That’s what it’s about.

See OLI’s 10th Annual performance at Sony Centre on May 18th. Buy tix here.