Ahmad Joudeh is the only Arab ballet dancer in the Dutch National Ballet company. Until late last year, he was stuck in Syria—and he never dreamed he would be able to escape and dance freely.

Joudeh grew up in a refugee camp in Damascus, where his father would beat him and burn his dance clothes, all to prevent him from dancing.

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“My dad didn’t want me to dance because being a ballet dancer—there is something so shameful,” Joudeh says.

But Joudeh danced anyway, first in defiance of his father, and later in defiance of the Islamic State terrorist group. He even got a tattoo—“Dance or Die” in Arabic—on the back of his neck, where he knew he might be beheaded if he were captured.

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A chance encounter with a Dutch filmmaker brought Joudeh to the attention of the Dutch National Ballet. The director of the company helped secure Joudeh permission to go to Amsterdam in late 2016.

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Today, he dances and teaches lessons, but he still suffers from trauma and memories of the country he left behind.

“I like to teach dance because I suffered a lot to learn it,” Joudeh says. “It’s building bridges between our culture and their culture. What I really want to teach is: Dance can change your life.”

“It gave me all that courage to face the whole war,” he says.