In 2016, Ahmad Joudeh danced on the rubble of the refugee camp where he was born and raised in Damascus, Syria. What was once his family’s home had been destroyed by extremists as the Syrian civil war wreaked havoc in the region. Joudeh was shot at three times during his dance, but he did not stop to take cover.
It was an act of defiance. The war had taken everything from him — his home, family members, sense of security — but they could not take away his dance, as long as he was alive.
“That was the strongest moment of my life,” said Joudeh, a professional dancer and choreographer from Syria who is in town for Ballet Beyond Borders. The four-day international dance festival started Wednesday and runs through Saturday.
Joudeh is the subject of the Emmy Award-winning documentary, “Dance or Die,” and is set to speak about his journey from a refugee camp in war-torn Syria to a professional dancer, author, humanitarian and activist for the arts Thursday night at the University Center Theater after a screening of the film.
Born in 1990, Joudeh grew up in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, the Syrian capital. His extended family, including uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents, all lived in the same building that his grandfather built brick by brick.
“Officially, we are stateless, so you don’t have identity there,” Joudeh said on Tuesday during a break in his busy schedule at Ballet Beyond Borders in Missoula. “So basically you need your family to make you feel human, otherwise others will make you feel nothing.”
This building that housed his entire family in the refugee camp was Joudeh’s whole world, he said.
When he was 8, his school in the camp was chosen to perform at the end-of-the-year celebration at the theater in the Damascus city center. Joudeh sang and played instruments with his classmates as part of the event. After his performance, a group from the local all-girls school danced a ballet piece.
“That’s when I saw dance for the first time,” Joudeh said, adding his body started to move to the music almost on its own as he watched the girls dance.
He went home, went to his room, locked the door and began trying to imitate the ballet moves in secret. Something just clicked and he knew he had found his passion.
“Dance there is mostly known for females,” Joudeh said. Worried about his parents’ possible disapproval, he continued to practice behind closed doors.
“I was doing it secretly in my room, until my mother found out. I forgot to lock the door.”
It took Joudeh a second to gauge her reaction, until she spoke: “You have to stretch your knees, do you know this?”
“And then she explained to me about dancing and she started to give me exercises for flexibility,” Joudeh said.
Joudeh continued secret practices in his room and his mother continued to help him, even encouraging him to join the professional company in Damascus as he got older, an aspiration Joudeh said stuck with him.
At 16, totally self-taught and not knowing where this supposed dance company was located, Joudeh hopped in a taxi and told the driver to take him to the theater in the city center, intending to audition for a place with the group.
“It was an adventure,” he said, adding he ended up at the right place, the main Syrian ballet company at the Enana Dance Theater. “I was accepted and went into the company. But I had a deal with my mother that it is secret. So my father didn’t know, nobody knows.”
For a year, Joudeh attended classes, with his mom covering for him, saying he was at her parents' home or a friend’s house. He traveled to Qatar, Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon, dancing and improving his skills.
“Until my father saw me on TV,” he said, adding the camera zoomed in for a close-up of Joudeh’s face, giving away his dance secret to his entire family.
His father was furious, scolded him and told him he had to stop dancing. Joudeh didn’t listen and instead continued dancing and fighting with his father, often getting physical beatings for going to class.
“He was beating me really hard, telling me either study or dance. And I said no, either dance or die.” To dance was to exist, and giving it up was not an option for Joudeh.
While his father did not approve of his dancing, his mother stood by her son, causing a split in the family.
“I heard them most of the time talking about me, that my father was scared that I will be homosexual or I’m bringing shame being a dancer. And she was saying, ‘But this is the way he expresses himself.’”
At 17, he and his mom left the family’s building in the refugee camp together to start a new life where Joudeh could pursue his passion for dance.
“When we left, me and my mother, we were very isolated,” he said, adding that it was difficult, especially for his mother living on her own as a divorced woman. After two years, Joudeh got sick with hepatitis A, forcing him and his mother to return to their family building at the refugee camp. He recovered from the illness, but struggles with his father had only worsened, as Joudeh was now old enough to fight back.
“We had a lot of fights, but the thing is, I was working really good with the company, so I was making money,” he said, adding he was able to rent his own studio in his family’s building so he could teach dance classes to the camp’s children.
“We made really good money because it was a unique place at the camp, so everybody wanted to put their children there.”
His father remarried and eventually left. Joudeh continued to teach kids out of his building and was content.
In 2011, the civil war started in Syria and Joudeh’s life changed forever.
The family lived amid bombing in Damascus, every day just trying to survive. One day, a car pulled up outside his family’s building. The car was filled with bombs and Joudeh said the extremists who got out of the car must have panicked, because they told everyone to get out of the building and flee.
When the bombs went off, most of Joudeh’s family had escaped the building and the few who hadn’t survived the blast.
As the ash was still falling and the rubble of his family’s building still burning, Joudeh looked around and saw his whole world destroyed.
“I was looking for all of the pieces of my childhood in all of this collapse.”
But the family only had what they were wearing and nowhere to go.
“Luckily nobody died at that bombing, but during the war, I lost five of my family,” he said. “Two uncles of mine and three cousins and that was horrible. One after one, like every week or two weeks we would lose somebody.”
The war continued and most of Joudeh’s uncles, aunts and family were able to leave Syria some way or another, leaving him, his mother and his siblings to fend for themselves in a war zone.
His mother moved the family to Palmyra to escape the worst of the bombings, but Joudeh stayed in Damascus to finish his dance studies. Homeless, he ended up living in a tent on his friend’s family’s roof.
After two and a half months, the fighting in Damascus calmed down enough for his mother and siblings to return. The family moved into a home directly on the fire line, where Joudeh said the rent was the cheapest.
“If you stay alive, you pay less,” he said with a chuckle. “You sit and sometimes a bullet comes through the wall, and we just laugh because what can we do?”
Life like this went on and Joudeh continued to study and teach dance to children, who like him, were using art to express themselves and escape the harsh realities outside the theater.
Sometimes during class the electricity in the studio would go out during heavy bombing.
“We just lit lights and I use my phone for music. We just continue, because those kids, they had this as a motivation for living.”
Each day he, his mother and siblings would leave the house, not knowing whether they would return.
“All of us were working just to try to survive,” he said. “We don’t know if we will stay alive tomorrow, so we don’t have any expectations from life.”
At the same time, his classes were gaining popularity. He had to add sections to allow for more kids. He had also become a recognized face in the country, as his company’s principal dancer. In 2014, he participated in the Arab version of “So You Think You Can Dance,” a TV competition.
“Because of this, I was known. And then ISIS knew about me,” he said, adding his face started to pop up on Facebook under extremist accounts with a “Wanted” label on it. He started getting messages over his phone and social media with death threats from the group.
At one point, he was sitting on a bench waiting for a bus and was shot at, but not hit.
“They sent me a message and said, 'We didn’t miss, we want to shoot you in your leg to make you suffer, not to die,'” he said, adding he didn’t move a muscle, got on the bus and left alive and unhurt.
“Dancing for them, arts for them, is something you don’t do,” he said. On top of that, he taught kids, which made him even more of a target.
In an act of defiance, Joudeh got a tattoo that reads “Dance or Die” on the back of his neck. It was the same thing he had said to his father when he was 17.
“I wanted it to be the last thing they see before they cut my head.”
During this time, Joudeh had to live his life cautiously, always looking over his shoulder. But he continued teaching, even creating a project specifically for children who had lost parents to the war called “Tomorrow is Ours.”
One day, Joudeh had an idea to shoot a video of himself dancing on his roof, amidst the rubble and ruin of his city.
“I said, ‘OK, one day they will know there was a dancer here.’”
He posted it to YouTube and Facebook, where the clip was shared and spread quickly.
Soon after, he was contacted by Dutch journalist Roozbeh Kaboly, who had seen his video and wanted to make a documentary about him. At first, Joudeh turned him down, saying Damascus was too dangerous and he didn’t want anyone to die on his account.
But Kaboly came anyways and Joudeh said because he was already there, he decided to work with him.
Kaboly asked Joudeh where he wanted to dance for the footage, a question Joudeh had been waiting for for a long time. First he wanted to return to Yarmouk, the refugee camp he grew up in, now dust, rocks and stones.
He danced in the rubble of his childhood home, an area that was still occupied by extremists. He said he was shot at three times, as Kaboly captured his movements, but he did not stop dancing.
He also wanted to dance at the ancient Roman theater in Palmyra, which extremists had used to execute people.
“I went there to dance on the same theater where they killed people to let them know this theater is for art, not for killing people,” he said. A month later, that theater was bombed.
“I was the last artist who could dance there or who could be on that stage.”
Joudeh hoped the footage would send a powerful message to the world: Dance or die.
During production, the Dutch National Ballet caught wind of Joudeh’s talents and sought to bring him to the Netherlands to join the company. But as a stateless person, Joudeh didn’t have a passport.
“I didn’t want to come as a refugee. I lived all my life as a refugee,” he said. In 2016, he was provided a student visa and left Syria for Amsterdam.
He’s been dancing there ever since, sharing his journey and continuing to teach kids.
When he saw the documentary, he said he cried. He was able to travel with the film crew to New York City in November for the International Emmy Awards, where “Dance or Die” won the Arts Programming category. Joudeh has also written an autobiography called “Danza o Muori” (Dance or Die).
Despite 11 years of fighting, Joudeh’s father has come around and now supports his dance career. Joudeh said living in Berlin for awhile during the war opened his dad’s mind, but he also saw Joudeh dancing live for the first time.
“He told me, ‘I don’t know if I feel sorry or happy now,’” Joudeh said. “I told him to just enjoy it now, you don’t have to be sorry.”
The Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre has been trying bring Joudeh to Missoula for Ballet Beyond Borders for three years, said Charlene Campbell Carey, the event's president.
“The fact that he has taken the little opportunities he’s had and changed peoples’ lives and is continually doing that is incredible,” Carey said. She hopes his story inspires others to pay it forward regardless of what one must face.
Joudeh will share his journey with dancers and the public Thursday night at 7 p.m. at the UC Theater on the University of Montana campus as part of Ballet Beyond Borders. The event is free and open to the public and will also include a screening of the documentary “Dance or Die.”
He hopes he can talk about his life and inspire others to pursue their passions no matter what anyone says and no matter how difficult it may seem.
“I faced a lot. The stuff I saw, I face it every night I sleep. I’m helping myself to embrace my pain and convert it into power and strength and be a voice for stateless people, for stateless artists.”