Ahmad Joudeh is no stranger to dancing in dramatic locations: from rooftops overlooking the rubble in Yarmouk to the ancient ruins of Palmyra, he has defied death threats to perform.
Now Joudeh has entertained crowds at the Eiffel Tower and outside the Paris Opera, leaping, whirling and pirouetting to “Dance or Die,” a song created especially to help spread his message of peace and cultural understanding.
“I had the opportunity to come to Paris to work with (French singer) Sanga on the song,” Joudeh told CNN. “He wrote it for me and for my motto in life, which is ‘dance or die.’”
“I was expecting good things to happen, but not such great and wonderful thing that are happening now.”
Dance or die: These are the words tattooed in Sanskrit on the back of Joudeh’s neck. They are both a promise to himself, and a challenge to his enemies.
The 27-year-old grew up in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, Syria, overcoming conservative backlash, civil war and even terrorists for his art.
While others from his community would describe themselves as a Syrian refugee, or a stateless Palestinian, for Joudeh the two words that constitute his identity are different: ballet dancer.
“I felt when I danced for the first time this is who I am,” he explains. “I was born as a refugee in a camp. Now the whole world calls me the dancer. That’s what I always wanted to be: the dancer.”
Death threats from ISIS
Few supported Joudeh’s passion as a child.
“When my dad found out, he came to me and said ‘We don’t want this. You are not going to be a dancer,’” Joudeh recalls. “He tried everything. He was beating me.”
But Joudeh refused to give up dancing, and his father eventually left the family.
His departure meant Joudeh was financially responsible for his mom and brother, but he persevered, completing his ballet education while teaching dance classes for money.
His talent earned him a slot on the Arab version of “So You Think You Can Dance” – but his success also made him a target.
In 2015, ISIS stormed his neighborhood and began sending Joudeh threats, telling him dancing was punishable by death.
Joudeh’s response was to have his message of defiance inked permanently into his skin.
“I did my tattoo, ‘Dance or die,’ because if they wanted to cut my head I want them to see this as the last thing they can see,” he explains.
He lost family members and his home in the Syrian conflict, but remained unbowed, resolute.
He danced on.
A new life in Europe
Then, a year ago, Joudeh’s life changed forever when the Dutch National Ballet offered to sponsor him to study and live in Amsterdam.
The move to Europe means he is safe and thriving, but his mind is never at ease. He says his family has been attacked twice since he moved to Europe, because of his art.
“When I think of my family it’s hard to breathe, especially while I am dancing,” he says, tears welling in his eyes.
“I was doing the repetitions and at a certain point my country and my family they came to my mind and I couldn’t even move and I couldn’t breathe.”
Joudeh’s journey has changed at least one mind, though: That of his father, now living as a refugee in Germany.
“I was visiting him in Berlin just five days ago, and he was dancing in his house!” Joudeh laughs, shimmying as he recounts the story.
His father’s dramatic transformation has reaffirmed Joudeh’s belief that ballet can warm the darkest hearts, and open long-closed minds.
“It gives me the proof I can change the whole world if I really believe in myself,” he says. “When I could change my father’s mind, I could change maybe a lot of fathers’ minds in the Arab world.”
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Joudeh says that now that he has come through them, he doesn’t even regret the tough times he experienced.
“I am so thankful for my life. I am thankful for the war, for ISIS, for all the bad things, because they were the reason that gave me this strong personality,” he says, vowing: “I will reach the whole world to tell them we can be artists. The good way to fight is art, dance, music, painting.”
“I know myself as the luckiest Syrian in the world.”