Until very recently, Syrian dancer Ahmad Joudeh was still giving dance classes to children in Damascus, among the rubble and the atrocities of war. In the summer of 2016, Roozbeh Kaboly, from the Dutch news programme Nieuwsuur, made a 15-minute documentary about Ahmad called Dance or Die.
Born in 1990, Ahmad grew up in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, son of a Palestinian father and Syrian mother. He wanted to dance from very young but had to take classes in secret as his father was against it. As Ahmad explains however, dance and ballet in particular are at odds with most Arabs’ image of masculinity, and when his father found out about his dancing, he was beaten, sometimes severely. He carried on, though, later training at Enana Dance Theatre and at the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts, both in Damascus. From age 17, he gave ballet classes to children free of charge. In 2014, he was a contestant in the Arab version of So You Think You Can Dance.
The documentary changed Ahmad’s life radically. On seeing it, Dutch National Ballet director Ted Brandsen was so impressed by the Syrian dancer’s passion for dancing under the most difficult circumstances that he decided to do something to bring him to the Netherlands. But as he observes, the company did not have the means to do that themselves. “We’re not subsidised for that. However, we do have the contacts and we know how to bring dancers over from abroad. I thought that if I had been moved by the programme then so would many other viewers. There would be people who wanted to help.”
So the company set up the fund, Dance for Peace (www.danceforpeace.nl), through which people could give money to pay for Ahmad’s study and maintenance expenses. Through those donations, Ahmad Joudeh has successfully made the journey to the Netherlands and started his four-year training as a student of the National Ballet Academy in Amsterdam to develop his talents as a dancer and choreographer. In the December production of Coppélia, he will be making his debut on a Dutch stage in a supporting role. A further Dutch TV film about his progress, Dance for Peace was recently broadcast.
It’s expected that the fund will attract more donations that are needed for Ahmad. The additional money will be used to help other dancers and artists in Syria, using Ahmad’s network to do so.
Ahmad says, “After the broadcast of Dance or Die, I received many invitations, from people in the US, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Italy and Belgium. And the Netherlands. When Ted Brandsen contacted me, I knew straight away that that was where I wanted to go. I’ve been following Dutch National Ballet on YouTube for a long time, watching the clips over and over again. And now I’m here. I’m so incredibly happy”.
For more about the Dance for Peace fund, Ahmad and to donate, visit www.danceforpeace.nl (Dutch only, although Google Translate does a good job).