Ahmad Joudeh was born and raised in the Yarmouk refugee camp, near Damascus. His family is of Palestinian origin — “my grandfather, like so many others, arrived in Syria in 1948” — and yet remarkably, he made his debut with the Dutch National Ballet earlier this year, studies at the ballet academy in Amsterdam, and will be on Italian television dancing with Roberto Bolle on New Year’s Day.
My father and brother are musicians, it’s a family tradition, but I’ve never been good at playing. It was during one of their concerts, when I was 8, that I saw a group of girls dancing and that’s when I knew: I must dance.
That decision led to him graduating from the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts in Damascus, joining the Enana Dance Theater company, going on tour from Lebanon to the Emirates, arriving in the semi-finals in the Arabic version of So You Think You Can Dance, and starting to teach ballet to Syrian orphans.
However, everything around him seemed to be trying to smother his desire to dance. Syria was engulfed in war, Assad’s bombs destroyed his family’s house, and jihadists took control of the Yarmouk Camp. In 2014 he started receiving death threats from ISIS on Facebook:
For them it is intolerable that a Muslim can decide for himself what he wants to be. But true Islam is something else; it gives you freedom to choose.
Joudeh’s response was to tattoo “Dance or Die” on the back of his neck, right where the jihadists would have had to aim to execute him.
Most difficult of all were the beatings from his father who wanted him to stop dancing. Joudeh would dance in secret on the roof to avoid the blows. After 11 years, he met up with his father who lives in an asylum seeker centre in Germany. He told The Guardian,
I hated my father for what he had done to me, but being in the west, I wanted to start a new life without hate. So, I forgave everyone who tried to keep me from dancing.
A few days ago, his father visited him in his dressing room.
We hugged. He cried and apologised for all the times he attempted to stop me from dancing.
During the summer of 2016, Dutch filmmaker Roozbeh Kaboly made a documentary about him. Ahmad danced on the stage of the ancient Roman Theatre of Palmyra, the same where Isis has forced 25 children to kill as many prisoners.
In the 18-minute film, guns can be heard going off in the background:
You hear their guns? They told me they will shoot me in my leg just so that I will lose my life as a dancer.
Dutch National Ballet’s managing director Ted Brandsen saw the film and wanted to help. He started a crowdfunding initiative to raise money and a few months later, Joudeh was on a plane for Amsterdam.
When I arrived in Holland I was in shock. I was not accustomed to so much freedom to express myself.
It was in Amsterdam that he met Roberto Bolle.
For 11 years, I watched his videos on YouTube… I even had his picture as my desktop wallpaper. When he entered the room, I burst into tears. He is a model for me and inspired me in everything I did.
Joudeh and Bolle have become friends and on 10 December they will be joint guests on Italy’s best-known talk show, Che tempo che fa, and he’ll also be featured in Bolle’s New Year’s Day show on Rai 1, Roberto Bolle – Danza con me (Dance with me).
When I told my mother, she whooped with joy — she knows how important Roberto is to me.
His parents are now separated over the hatred his father demonstrated toward his passion.
I want to go back to Syria, one day, and dance… In peace.
To find out more, the December 2017 of Dancing Times has an article about Ahmad Joudeh and has dedicated its cover to him.
Ahmad Joudeh was talking to the Corriere della sera’s Marta Serafini.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.