Syrian children dance through tears and rubble, with “Dance or Die” hero

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When there is nothing left to do, you might as well do something. In Syria, where the war is five years and counting, dancing might be the last thing on anyone’s mind. But for Ahmad Joudeh, it is a priority. Dance is his lifeblood, and he is fueling others with it, too.

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Joudeh teaches dance classes to young people, including a large group of orphaned children. The studio must seem like an oasis in the middle of a desert of smashed concrete. While not necessarily a safe haven – really, nowhere in Syria is safe – it is a refuge for the soul.

As a dancer, I know that dance stimulates both the body and the mind. Joudeh teaches, among other styles, ballet – the most exacting genre of dance there exists. For the young students, working on a higher leg extension, to name an example, could be a metaphor for getting past the extreme hardship they face every day.

The inspiring teacher has had a great deal of success in his career as a professional dancer. Most notably, he was a top contestant on Yalla Nor’os, the Pan-Arab version of the show So You Think You Can Dance.

syria-dance-ahmad joudeh-teacher-childrenThese days, though, he can’t devote as much time to dance as he wants. Survival is not a guarantee, and so he has altered his lifestyle to help ensure it. As it shows him kneading dough in the video above, one of his main responsibilities is to quite literally put bread on the table.

And yet, and yet…he still makes time to teach dance classes. Not only is his teaching a special effort; it is also a huge risk. Joudeh has received several violent threats. One promised to shoot him in the leg, so as to handicap him, if he continued to dance and teach dance.

But with his strength of character, he refuses to be intimidated. “Dance or die” – that’s his motto, written in ink across the back of his neck. If we must fight for what we believe in, then he is a leader in the battle.

“You hear the guns?” He asked the cameraman . “They are shooting us. But they will never kill us.” He knows that he feels the most alive when he dances, and that dance itself can never die.

In the meantime, before something changes for the better or worse in his world, he dances for lost souls – on a rooftop in Damascus, in the streets at the place he once called home, in the rubble of Palmyra – sweeping up shards of glass and debris, and the occasional bullet, with his feet.

Art can come from any emotion, and it can create any emotion: grief, joy, anger, grace. It is clear that the young dancers under Joudeh’s instruction love the opportunity they have to learn something new and express themselves.

They are growing stronger, as dancers and as people, with each class. The electricity cut during filming for the video, right as the kids were talking about never giving up. In the darkness, you can hear their laughter and – unless I imagined it – a “Welcome to Syria!”

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