One Dancer's Journey From War-Torn Damascus to Dutch National Ballet

December 15, 2016

It’s easy to forget how lucky we are to live in a place where we can safely pursue our dance training. For dancers in war zones or in places where dance is thought of as unlawful or inappropriate, a dance career can be nearly impossible. But for Ahmad Joudeh—a Syrian dancer who’s had to overcome both of these circumstances—there’s hope.

Joudeh, born to a Palestinian father and a Syrian mother, grew up in a refugee camp in Syria, a country that has been engulfed in civil war since 2011. And from an early age, he wanted to dance. Lacking familial support, he took classes in secret—and was beaten by his father when he got caught. But he persevered, giving free ballet lessons to children in his community and appearing on the Arab version of “So You Think You Can Dance.”

Last year, journalist Roozbeh Kaboly discovered Joudeh, and created a segment entitled Dance or Die for Dutch news program Nieuswuur. The footage depicts Joudeh improvising among the rubble of his old Damascus neighborhood, which had been destroyed by bombings. It shows his local dance studio, where Joudeh had been training with a small group of persistent dancers of all ages. “Despite the war, we have very talented people,” says one dancer. Another, who was wounded in the violence, says he is able to forget the war when he’s dancing. From Joudeh’s roof—which he uses as his rehearsal space—he can hear guns going off in the conflict zone just blocks away.

Luckily, Dance or Die was seen by the right person: Ted Brandsen, artistic director of Dutch National Ballet, who set up a fund to bring Joudeh to the Netherlands.

Today, Joudeh lives in Amsterdam and is training in ballet and contemporary at the National Ballet Academy. He is preparing to perform in DNB’s production of Coppelia this month—his debut on a Dutch stage. “My life now is the best life,” he says.

This good news comes at a time when thousands of Syrians are trying to leave the country—especially in Aleppo, a rebel-held city that in recent weeks has faced particularly brutal attacks by the Syrian government as well as Russian forces.

Thankfully, according to Brandsen, his Dance for Peace fund is expected to raise more money than is needed to maintain Joudeh’s training in Amsterdam, so he hopes to use it to bring other Syrian artists to the Netherlands. The more artists whose talents can be given the space and safety to thrive, the better.

Dance or Die
, and a new segment about Joudeh, Dance for Peace, here.