NYC dance company commemorates Dance or Die hero

We told the story to readers of Ahmad Joudeh over two years ago. We shared how, in the middle of the Syrian crisis, despite danger and dire straits, he continued to dance and teach dance to his young students.

With a special interest in the Middle East, after studying Arabic and also teaching dance to underprivileged children in Jordan, I was touched when I learned about Joudeh. Then around this time last year, in rehearsals for a modern dance show, I found out that one of the pieces I would perform centered around him. An excerpt from the documentary that introduced Joudeh to the world would play on the screen at the back of the stage. This good fortune moved me; I felt so lucky and eager to embrace his “Dance or die” spirit, to embody his movement, to give his story the spotlight it deserves – this time on a New York City stage.

In his documentary, there was one scene in which Joudeh dances on a barren concrete rooftop. It’s a beautiful day, a minaret and dome of a mosque visible beyond the roof’s border, but one inevitably fears that there isn’t much time before all of the structures pictured will crumble, the dust will block out the sun…

Joudeh ushers in a sense of hope to that roof, though, as he sweeps his leg around, tumbles to the floor but then reaches an outstretched hand to the sky. His movement is big; you can tell that he needs this art as much as it sustains him.

I, too, like to move big, and I know I dance better when I am emotionally charged. In this piece by the company Born Dancing, Inc., called Grey 5 because it was the fifth of a set of pieces dedicated to Syria, collectively called Grey, I started mimicking Joudeh’s movement pattern, dancing with him as I faced the back, looking at him on the screen. Three dancers joined and we danced in canon, and then it was complete accumulation: all six of us were flying and reaching alongside Ahmad Joudeh.


View the video on Facebook here.

The piece ended with pictures of Syrian children affected by the war flashing over the screen, and the dancers reacting to it. I remember that the director, Melissa van Wijk, did not choreograph our reactions; she let us feel the way we felt, and manifest that through movement, whatever it was. I appreciated that freedom awarded us, when usually dance is so exacting.

On the subject of freedom, I would like to give an update on Joudeh’s whereabouts. He is now dancing with the Dutch National Ballet. No doubt his technique and artistry have soared, and his future dance students will be all the more lucky to have him. Last month his first book, an autobiography, called Danza o Muori, Italian for Dance or Die, was published by DeA Planeta Libri. I have to brush up on my Italian, and then I’ll pick up a copy.


Tonight is opening night of Born Dancing, Inc.’s fourth production. Although we will not be showing all of Grey, and that means no Grey 5, there is a duet, Grey 2, that we have pulled to show, and I have the honor of dancing in it. I assume the role of a mother figure as I dance with an 11-year-old named Emily, who represents Syrian refugee children at large. We play, I support her, she supports me, and love is palpable.


This weekend, I bet Ahmad Joudeh is performing, too. Although we won’t be sharing the stage in person or thanks to digital technology, we will still be close: I plan to carry his love of dance in my heart, and that’s as close at it gets.

First photo courtesy of Born Dancing, Inc. Photo of Danza o Muori taken off Ahmad Joudeh’s Instagram page.

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