TORONTO - When life gets Solomon Harper down, he dances. And when he feels happy, he dances even more.
The 16-year-old from St. Theresa Point First Nation describes dance as a powerful emotional outlet, a motivator that's pushing him to mentor other youth, and to one day become a professional choreographer and pursue a law degree at university.
Plus, it just feels good to dance: "I feel like I'm at home, dancing is more an emotional thing for me," says Harper, who began Grade 10 last September at Winnipeg's Indigenous-focused Southeast Collegiate.
"It releases my emotions mentally and physically. Let's say if I'm really happy, I'll probably just bust a move or, let's say if I get caught with my feels or anything, I end up like going into contemporary, where it just releases everything."
Harper is among 114 Indigenous students set to dance their hearts out Thursday at an annual showcase run by Outside Looking In, a nationwide program that encourages mostly on-reserve kids in Grades 7 to 12 to stay in school and give back to their communities by tapping into their love of music and movement.
Participants must maintain a minimum grade point average, show up for academic and dance classes, and stay out of trouble.
Most come from fly-in communities where school attendance and graduation rates can be especially low, says choreographer Queenie Seguban, who teaches mostly hip hop and pop dance in Manitoba's Garden Hill First Nation, about two hours north of Winnipeg.
When Seguban joined the program in 2015, just 40 kids signed up and only seven made it all the way to the Toronto showcase. This year, 150 students signed up, and 25 have made it to Toronto.
That may sound like a low success rate, but Seguban says many face tremendous hurdles, including family responsibilities, teen pregnancy and drug and alcohol problems. But she's quick to dismiss harmful stereotypes about Indigenous youth.
"It's mostly that the kids are dealing with intergenerational trauma, they're dealing with trauma that their family, their grandmas and their mothers are dealing with," she says, adding that for her, teaching dance steps is "the easy part."
"Really my role there sometimes is just keeping them engaged and letting them know that they're important and that they're valuable."
That can be in small ways, such as starting each class with everyone standing in a circle, and not hanging back against a wall.
"I have to make sure I see their face and I have to make sure I know them by name because a lot of the kids feel like they're invisible or they're not important or they're less valued. Even just calling their name and them having to say, 'Present, I'm here,' is a struggle for so many students."
Apart from the obvious physical component, program manager Maureen Hatherley says dance offers a range of benefits other art forms can't. Just hearing the music is a powerful mood lifter, and the communal aspect forces kids to work as a team, while building new bonds and learning about life in other Indigenous communities when it all culminates in a two-week bootcamp just before the show.
Keeping teens accountable to measurable benchmarks also teaches them to plan ahead, listen to criticism and cope with setbacks, she adds.
"For a lot of youth, it's a big thing to actually get feedback and very constructive feedback," says Hatherley. "It's all about performance. If you're going to dance you're going to have to be willing to be seen. So that's kind of the first big obstacle in the program, that's the big challenge."
Plus, many of these kids simply have no other sport or dance opportunities commonly found in the city.
Outside Looking In started in 2008 with just five youth from Lac La Croix First Nation in northwestern Ontario.
This year there are 13 communities, including some for the first time — among them, Winnipeg, Penticton in British Columbia and Membertou in Nova Scotia.
Just 12 communities will be represented at Thursday's show, because none of the youth completed the program in one community.
That happens from time to time, says Hatherley, noting that all kids who drop out have the chance to try again the following year.
"Sometimes they might be the best dancer out there, but emotionally they're just not ready yet because it is very challenging. There's a lot of ups and downs in the program. And one thing we really try to teach kids is that ups and downs are normal, but you have to persist, you have to keep going, you have to dig in and you move yourself through," she says.
"The kids that learn to navigate those challenges and keep moving through, will be the kids that end up on the stage."