Before dance, life was much different for 19-year-old Jax Wood.
“I used to be really depressed. I was always at home. I even lost connection with family,” the resident of St. Theresa Point, Man., told CTV National News.
All that changed after joining Outside Looking In, a program introducing dance classes to remote Indigenous communities in Canada.
On Thursday, the organization marked its 15th annual showcase — one of the largest Indigenous youth performances in Canada — at the Meridian Hall in downtown Toronto.
The showcase featured more than 100 performers representing 20 First Nations across Canada, some of whom have never left their home communities, as well as special musical guests DJ Shub and Snotty Nose Rez Kids. The students also receive a high school credit.
Wood, who this year danced at the showcase for the third time, said she is closer to family and more social since taking part in Outside Looking In.
The program, she said, helped her find who she is.
It’s a story others who have taken part in the annual event share.
Also in his third year, Jeremiah Knott of Wasagamack First Nation in Manitoba said the program helped him make more friends.
“It was so exciting to see so much people cheering for us,” he said.
Shantelle Geyshick of Lac La Croix First Nation in Ontario performed in the showcase 15 years ago and, this year, joined her daughter Amaya on stage.
“It’s very empowering. It’s a really good feeling, it’s very emotional too,” Shantelle said.
“That was a very, very special moment to me,” Amaya said. “I don’t think I’m ever going to forget that.”
Watching backstage as those who have gone through the program now host the show can be emotional for Outside Looking In founder Tracee Smith.
“It’s nice to see them start it, grow and become amazing people. It’s so gratifying,” she said.
Wanting to change how people view First Nations teens who come from remote communities, Smith said the program aims to provide a sense of community to those kids “that were kind of lonely.”
Although the COVID-19 pandemic limited travel and the ability to offer dance classes, the organization kept other programs, such as their entrepreneurship business course, alive virtually, she said.
It also gave time for the organization to do some back-end work on the dance program, so when the time came it could return “full steam.”
“It feels great to finally be back on stage again after two years,” Smith said. “So we were waiting for this day and we’re finally here today.