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rhythm nation

Students from the Pikangikum and Mushuau Innu First Nations practice their dance routines at Toronto's St. Lawrence Centre.

In a downtown auditorium large enough to fit every member of their tiny rural communities, 39 children from first nations reserves in Northern Ontario and Labrador will perform hip-hop dance routines Wednesday night, reaping their reward for staying in school.

They're participants in the Outside Looking In dance program, a charity launched four years ago that uses dance and a trip to Toronto as incentives to get high-school students living on reserve to keep their grades up and graduate.

As the group rehearsed Tuesday afternoon at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, Michael Ottertail, a volunteer chaperone and a Lac La Croix First Nations council member, sat in the audience.

He said that this time last year there were only three kids attending high school in his Northwestern Ontario community, because the dropout and absenteeism rates were so high. This year, however, there were close to 20. Nearly all of them were on stage rehearsing and Mr. Ottertail credits the dance program for the turnaround.

"I'm just so proud," he said. "These kids, I don't think they'll know until after the show, until further on in their lives, what they've accomplished."

Most of the kids had never seen a skyscraper or a streetcar, and they're staying at a camp in Brantford where it "looks a little more like home," Mr. Ottertail said. He died his hair pink and walked 30 kilometres to help raise the $15,000 it took to get all the kids to Toronto.

The Lac La Croix group drove 20 hours from their home, while the other dancers flew in from Pikangikum in Northern Ontario and the Mushuau Innu community in Labrador.

The students started rehearsing in January. A dance instructor was flown in on alternate weeks to work with them, and volunteers and teachers helped rehearse the routines. Over the course of six months, dozens of students were cut from the dance troupe because they didn't keep their grades up or missed too many classes.

"I wanted it to be a program that would keep them in school," said Tracee Smith, a professional dancer-turned-banker who founded the program. "And I wanted these kids to have a chance to feel good about themselves, about who they are."