Ahmad Joudeh: Dance or Die, From Stateless Refugee To International Ballet Star

Nov 2023

Ahmad Joudeh is a dancer and choreographer who overcame immense obstacles. Born and raised in Syria as a stateless refugee, his life story is a true testament to the power of art and the human spirit.

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"I don't let a day pass without improvement, without learning, without making a change."
Ahmad Joudeh: Dance or Die, From Stateless Refugee To International Ballet Star
“The opposite of war isn’t peace. It’s creation.”
by Jonathan Larson, an American composer and playwright

About The Episode

Dance is a universal language of emotions that connects people, unleashes their inner strength, and boosts confidence. It's a limitless form of expression that deeply touches those who embrace its movements and rhythms. 

In this episode of The Founder Spirit, we talk to Ahmad Joudeh, a dancer and choreographer who overcame immense obstacles. His life story is a true testament to the power of art and the human spirit.

Born in Syria as a stateless refugee, he faced opposition from family and received death threats for pursuing his passion as a ballet dancer. With help from the Dutch National Ballet, he moved to Amsterdam, founded the Dance or Die Foundation and fulfilled his dream.  

Ahmad shares how dance helped him survive in a war-torn country. Despite violence and devastating loss, he found solace in his art, offering free lessons to help children cope with trauma and build resilience. He also talks about his transition to Europe with culture shock and PTSD, leaving family behind battling to stay afloat. Against overwhelming odds, he continues to thrive and perform internationally as an artist. 

How did Ahmad persevere through life’s unimaginable adversities and go from a stateless refugee to an international ballet star?

TUNE IN & find out from this heartening conversation with Ahmad Joudeh, who shares his remarkable story about the power of dance, spreading hope and resilience around in world!


Ahmad Joudeh is a dancer and choreographer. Born on the outskirts of Damascus, Ahmad was raised as a stateless refugee in Syria. Upon discovering his deep passion for dance at a young age, he dreamed of becoming a professional dancer. Amid chaos and horrors of war, his pursuit was met with intense opposition from family members and death threats from militant extremists. Despite these challenges, his determination to dance remained unwavering.

In 2016, Ahmad's life took a dramatic turn when he was featured in an award-winning documentary titled "Dance or Die", highlighting his personal struggles in a war-torn country. With help from the Dutch National Ballet, he moved to Amsterdam and continued his dance training. 

Since 2017, Ahmad has been active internationally performing at numerous events, and founded the Dance or Die Foundation to support his dance and humanitarian work. Now a Dutch national and author of his memoir, also called “Dance or Die”, Ahmad is a High Profile Supporter for the UN Refugee Agency and an International Friend of the SOS Children's Villages.

He is a graduate of the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus (Syria) and recently became the first Arabic Ballet Master with a qualified Bachelor's degree from the Dutch National Ballet Academy.

Episode Transcript

[00:04] Jennifer Wu: Hi everyone, thanks for listening to The Founder Spirit podcast. I'm your host, Jennifer Wu. In this podcast series, I interview exceptional individuals from all over the world with the Founder Spirit, ranging from social entrepreneurs, tech founders, to philanthropists, elite athletes, and more. Together, we'll uncover not only how they manage to succeed in face of multiple challenges, but also who they are as people and their human story.

If this podcast has been beneficial or valuable to you, feel free to become a patron and support us on Patreon.com, that is P-A-T-R-E-O-N.com/TheFounderSpirit. As always, you can find us on Apple, Google, Amazon and Spotify, as well as social media and our website at TheFounderSpirit.com.

“Happiness, existence, freedom, power and life. That's dance to me.” 

“That was really a horrible moment of my life. But when I arrived to the ballet studio, all of this get erased from my mind, and then I sweat all my tears, and then I feel like, okay, I'm alive again, and I can get out of this door and fight again and survive again.” 

“And it's crazy how I survived and still wonder why. But until now, after all of this wondering, I believe that I am not the body who I am, I'm just the spirit who lives in this body. And this spirit has a mission and this spirit is living despite whatever. And this spirit is passing the hope and the passion and the happiness for the people who are around.”

Joining us today is the amazing Ahmad Joudeh, a dancer and choreographer. His life story is a true testament to the power of art and the human spirit.

Born on the outskirts of Damascus, Ahmad was raised as a stateless refugee in Syria. Upon discovering his deep passion for dance at a young age, he dreamed of becoming a professional dancer. Amid chaos and horrors of war, his pursuit was met with intense opposition from family members and death threats from militant extremists. Despite these challenges, his determination to dance remained unwavering.

In 2016, Ahmad's life took a dramatic turn when he was featured in an award-winning documentary titled "Dance or Die", highlighting his personal struggles in a war-torn country. With help from the Dutch National Ballet, he moved to Amsterdam and continued his dance training. 

Since 2017, Ahmad has been active internationally performing at numerous events, and founded the Dance or Die Foundation to support his dance and humanitarian work. Now a Dutch national and author of his memoir, also called “Dance or Die”, Ahmad is a High Profile Supporter for the UN Refugee Agency and an International Friend of the SOS Children's Villages.

Just how did Ahmad persevere through life’s unimaginable adversities and go from a stateless refugee to an international ballet star? Well, let’s talk to him & find out. 

Hello Ahmad, welcome to The Founder Spirit podcast! So grateful to have you with us today and thank you for taking the time.

[03:48] Ahmad Joudeh: Hi Jennifer, thank you very much for putting the spotlight on my story in your podcast. I'm really honored to be here, thank you.

[03:56] Jennifer: Growing up in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, what were some of your formative experiences from childhood?

[04:06] Ahmad: I had a beautiful childhood in this little refugee camp, and most of the people there were from Palestinian background. But officially they are stateless and they are still, till today, stateless. These people are very simple, very humble, very warm. For me, this refugee camp was the whole world. 

I grew up in a beautiful family, and I just wanted to be a dancer. And since I wanted to be a dancer, my world has changed, and my war has started. I say it this way because, unfortunately, I was not allowed to dance by some family members, starting from my father. 

And he was a bit extreme against my wish of becoming a dancer because as a male son, for him in a refugee camp, to be a ballet dancer, where people… the main goal for them is to find food, to live in peace. And they don't understand what is ballet dance, (a) form of art. So, unfortunately, it was a very difficult experience with my own dad that remained till today. 

But other than that, the refugee camp was, as I said, my whole world, and it was so small, but yet it was still a home where I could belong and where I could grow up. And I stayed there till I became 21-22 when this camp was bombed and we (were) forced to leave.

[05:41] Jennifer: You were raised in a very artistic family. Your father is a musician and a painter, as well as your brother and your sister. And as a young child, you were actually a singer, and you used to perform with the rest of your family in a music group. 

Can you tell us about the moment when you first fell in love with dance and what inspired you to pursue it?

[06:07] Ahmad: My father was trying to teach us as much as he could from arts, and it hurts me because he's an artist and he couldn't understand ballet. So when I was a kid, I used to sing with my brother and sister. We had little pans, and we were doing these little celebrations and events. 

One of the events was a school event and we were chosen from the schools of the camp to represent the camp in the city center theater. And the performance after us was six ballet dancers, little girls from the girls' school, and they were dancing a little piece from Swan Lake. 

When I saw them for the first time, and I was like, why am I singing? Why am I playing music with instruments? Why don't I do it with my body? And then I was fascinated by them - I wanted to move like them, and I was just in a different world. I really, really love to move with the music.

I didn't know before that was ballet. I didn't know this was a special form of art or special form of music. But then I was doing this secretly in my room for a while until my mom discovered that, and she's like, what are you doing? I don't know, just doing what I've seen. She's like, this is called ballet, this is dance. 

And she told me you should stretch your knee. And I was like, how do you know that? She said, I had some gymnastics training when I was a little girl - you really have to have flexibility. And I'm like, show me how. So she gave me my first movements or my first training, and I was like, wow, okay, I want to do this. 

And then when I became 16 years old, I joined the company, which is called Enana Dance Theater, and I started to learn Vaganova style from a Russian ballet master - her name (is) Albina Belova. And she was really taking care of me - she loved how I was shaped. I'm a tall person, I'm 190 (centimeters) right now, and for Syrians, this is really tall. (chuckles)

And she was happy to see some abilities she could work on. And I was so hungry to learn, and I even learned how to speak Russian just to talk to her, because I loved her so much, and I still love her. So, yeah, I was spoiled and taught very well by a woman who considers me a son for her. And I also was giving her a lot of flowers every Mother's Day (chuckles), and she keeps talking about it till now. It's so nice that we connected this way. 

But unfortunately, my father was in my way. When he saw me on TV, he became a monster, like what are you doing? What is this? And he found out after a year of me joining the company where I was performing, and then I was on TV, and he saw me on TV for the first time with all the makeup on and all the music and the spectacular show. 

And then when all the drama started, I was beaten up, and I was kicked out from the house. And it was really difficult for me because in our culture, you don't leave the house. Arabs, they live together forever. So, yeah, it was, for me, a little challenge.

[09:19] Jennifer: So your father was so angry with you for wanting to be a dancer and also angry with your mother for supporting you that he left the family.

[09:29] Ahmad: He actually kicked us out of the family, he did not leave us. He kicked me out, he divorced my mom. Me and my mom, we left the house, and then my sister and my brother followed us after that.

And he kept making our life difficult for a while because he didn't want to feel that he lost this competition somehow. And I also didn't want to feel (like) I lost this competition, so we became enemies, unfortunately.

[09:56] Jennifer: You have openly acknowledged that you're the reason for your family's breakup, and that is a really, really heavy burden to carry. And it's been almost two decades now, how do you cope with feeling responsible for this?

[10:13] Ahmad: I am still feeling responsible for this, and I took over the role of the man of the family. And my mom, my sister, my brother today, they live because of my support. I help my sister and my brother to graduate from universities and they have great diplomas. 

My brother (is) in fine arts and my sister (is) in sports and they are doing great and I'm super proud of them. And I also took care of my mom and I'm still taking care of her financially and I'm helping them with everything. They choose to stay in Syria. They chose, actually, but now they regret that they chose to stay because the situation now it's unbearable. 

But I'm still their support and that means I'm sacrificing a lot of my personal life and I live to make them happy and that is good enough to cope with that.

[11:14] Jennifer: I hope you live to make yourself happy too, Ahmad.

[11:17] Ahmad: I am, yes. (chuckles) I'm trying.

[11:20] Jennifer: Despite strong opposition from your father and also society at large, you persisted. You studied dance at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus. What does dance mean to you?

[11:35] Ahmad: Happiness, existence, freedom, power and life. That's dance to me.

[11:45] Jennifer: That's beautiful, thank you. By the way, at 190 (centimeters), you're just average height for the Dutch.

[11:51] Ahmad: I know, I don't feel excluded from the Dutch, so that's good.

[11:56] Jennifer: You were 21 when the Syrian civil war broke out. I think in a way, dance became your refuge as a way to escape the harsh reality of your environment. Nonetheless, it's really unimaginable to me or anyone. Not only were you dealing with the emotional trauma from your father's beating and your parents divorce, but also now having to support your family financially in the middle of this horrific violent conflict. 

Can you tell us a little bit of what was your life like during the war?

[12:30] Ahmad: During the war, I was just surviving, I did not have a life, I only felt alive while I'm dancing. And to me, I immediately bought a bicycle because I could not afford the bus the whole time or also because of the bike, I could survive several bombs. That's really funny, but it's true. If you're biking and you see a bomb, you can just go away with the bike and then you survive somehow. But if you are in a car or in a bus, you're stuck in the thing. 

Also, I had twelve checkpoints from where I lived to my ballet studio. And these twelve checkpoints, you don't know who is on there, these soldiers or whoever are there. Every time they stop me and they ask why am I not joining the army? Also, as a stateless, it's a must to join the army in Syria, and I still don't understand that. If I am not Syrian, how do you ask me to fight for your country, right? 

So I was stopped (at) every checkpoint, and they would ask me, why you're not joining? And I'm like, I'm a student, and I give them my student ID, which (is) written there, the Higher Institute for Theatrical Arts, the dance department. And they ask me, oh, so you are a dancer, okay, shake your hips for us. And I'm like, well, no, this is not the type of dance I do. Then they're like, what do you do? So you don't know. 

Or somebody, for example, sometimes they were like, oh, you're a dancer, please keep doing what you're doing, here you go. So it depends, or they would point a gun on your head and ask you to join the other guys on the wall. 

And I was in that situation, and they took my bike from me, and I felt they took everything I have from me. And I told him, give it back. And he said he put the gun in my head, and he's like, if you don't leave, I'm going to shoot you. (You’re) going to shoot me for a bike? That's everything I have after my house was bombed.

That was really a horrible moment of my life. But when I arrived to the ballet studio, all of this get erased from my mind, and then I sweat all my tears, and then I feel like, okay, I'm alive again, and I can get out of this door and fight again and survive again.

I remember when I had to walk from my ballet studio to my house because I did not have my bike there, where I felt super disrespected as a human being. It was so far, and I had to walk in this heat, and I was so tired after my ballet training, and I felt everything was taken from me. 

And I was like, why am I here? Why am I kept here? And I cannot leave. I don't have a passport. I don't have an identity for them on the system to know where I belong. But I kept on going and surviving, and it was very difficult. 

But then when I talk about it or think back, it just impressed me how did I do that. How did I become who I am today? And how I became a voice for these people who are still ripped from everything they have every day, to even today.

You cannot imagine how people live there, they are like zombies, walking dead, looking for food. That's how the Syrian people are, or the people who live in Syria right now, unfortunately.

[15:49] Jennifer: It's terrible. Ahmad, you witnessed many deaths during this period, and you decide to offer free dance lessons to children to help them overcome their traumas. As you had mentioned, when you enter that dance studio, you felt much more alive and you could leave the traumas and the conflict and the violence behind. 

But in your view, how does dance contribute, for these communities, to healing and resilience?

[16:35] Ahmad: I think dance has a very big power, even scary power for people who are insecure to move. This power needs somebody who’s very strong to handle it and to control it and to contain it. That's why you see some people, they freeze when you ask them to dance because they cannot handle this. 

It's a power of being, of humanity. And also, it is like presenting yourself in the spotlight, the one who everybody else is watching. And what goes in your mind sometimes is like, what are they thinking about me? Do I look silly?  But when you overcome this, this chaos, and contain it and control it, then you feel very powerful. Then you don't care what people think of you, then you feel very confident to face whatever (is) in your way. 

So that's what I wanted to teach the kids, because kids are clear spirits. They are still crystal clear. And that's why kids, they can connect easily to others and they can feel if this person is a bad person, this person is a good person, they can see so much through the eyes. You just look them in the eyes and you will see how they will perceive you. 

And through dance, I could teach them how to be in that world, imaginary world that they have in their mind, which is super clear. I tried to protect this imaginary world in their mind from what is around them, from bombs, from mortars, rockets - all of this around in Syria. These kids used to listen to this every day or face it or see it. 

And some of my kids that I taught in the SOS Children’s Villages saw their parents being assassinated in front of their eyes. And they were in the worst mental health you can ever imagine. And I impressed them somehow, and I could transform to them this powerful feeling through movement. And they loved that, and I saw them happily moving and competing who's better in the handstand, who's better doing this jump and who's better moving in a beautiful flow? 

So that project inspired me also, I exchanged inspiration with these kids because they also taught me how to connect to to my inner child, who's little Ahmad that needed a lot of support before, and now I am supporting him so I could connect to my inner child. By connecting to these kids, it helped a lot. 

They did so much better in school. And if they don't bring high grades, they are not allowed in the dance class. So everyone was so good, and we mixed this sound of bombs with music, we made it sound less horrific. I talk passionately about this because I lived it - these moments I can never forget.

And I still do that. I still teach kids through my foundation, Dance or Die Foundation. Not only for SOS Children’s Villages, I go also to different countries, for example, Morocco in Marrakech, there is this orphanage that I go almost every year, once or twice. And I have a group of dancers there, these little kids were found on the door of the orphanage, they don't even have a name.

We are in this world and in this time, we have everything, everything, we can connect through a mobile phone. Why do we still have these kids suffering somewhere in the world? Why? Just give me a reason. Why (do) these governments or these dictators, they still have the power, while we know they are killing their people? We have enough power to protect everybody, I believe that - we have enough power to make the whole world not in hunger. I just don't understand why not? 

Because by helping one person, this person can pass this help to his people, this is easy. I see in my daily life as an artist, I see a lot of obstacles still in my way, these difficulties that (have) no explanations. This is so unfair.

[20:37] Jennifer: Ahmad, as you mentioned, your house was bombed when ISIS, the extremists, took over. And in response to the constant death threats that you received from them, you got a tattoo on the back of your neck. Can you tell us what it says and what it means to you?

[20:54] Ahmad: These extremists, they came to the country holding the flag, saying things about Islam. And they believe in a god, which is, as I learned when I was growing up in the camp, Islam is not what they presented and I wanted to do something.

So I wrote Dance or Die on my neck after they threatened to cut my head. And it is in Indian, in Hindi because I believe in a dancing god, the Lord Shiva. I don't believe in their god, so it was a very huge message for them and it irritates them a lot. I'm not going to make them win. Maybe my way is too small to make a change, but it's still a change.

[21:36] Jennifer: You're so brave and courageous. Three times you had a gun pointed to your head and each time the gunman decided not to shoot. It's amazing that you never got injured considering the country is being decimated and people around you were dying. You lost five relatives in your family. 

Do you ever wonder why you were spared?

[22:03] Ahmad: Of course. I always wonder why I survived these things. Because it's crazy, it is crazy. I had these people pointing guns to my head, I survived bombs, I survived clashes. I even survived kidnapping - this I didn't mention in the book. I survived it and the way I handled the conversation, I was left alone with the guy with me. We were both kidnapped and he was beaten up, I was not touched - just the way I was talking to the person that kidnapped us - they were three (people) actually with guns.

And it's crazy how I survived and I still wonder why. But until now, after all of this wondering, I believe that I am not the body who I am. I'm just the spirit who lives in this body. And this spirit has a mission and this spirit is living despite whatever. And this spirit is passing the hope and the passion and the happiness for the people who are around. 

I don't ever think of being the best dancer in the world. I don't ever think of being the richest person on the world, or whatever people might assume. I just live my life for value - I don't let a day pass without improvement, without learning, without making a change. Even if I made somebody smile in the street, I'm happy. All these little changes that we can make during the day, it is a lot. 

It is a lot when I hear from my mom, when she tells me you know why life is giving you a lot? And she said, because your presence around people gives them joy before even you do anything. That's what my mom tells me. 

Even on top of that, you are so thoughtful of the youngest or the oldest in the room. You give enough respect and attention to these people. You are interested in their life, and you help them if they need help. And she's like, I would follow you blindfolded because I trust you so much, and I'm so proud of you. 

Oh, my God, when my mom said that, I was crying. I was like, wow. now I’ve arrived. (chuckles)

[24:23] Jennifer: It's beautiful. It's really beautiful. But it's also true, because even the first time I met you told us about your amazing life story, but yet you were shining, you’re always smiling. And I texted you without really expecting a response, and you responded. So here we are today. 

It's absolutely true, because I feel like you're respectful, and you also cherish everything that you have - may it be people or experiences.

[24:55] Ahmad: Thank you. It is because respect is the most precious thing that you can give yourself and people around you. It is even more important than love. Like in a certain relationship, first respect, then love. And that's how I was raised by my mom or by my family. And I think this is what we need. 

And also, little kids, they see that when you respect them and give them the time to express and to listen to them, also, they feel that, and they pass it to each other. I hope someday I will see in the Middle East, people respect each other. I really hope I would live to that day.

[25:36] Jennifer: Going back to your point about why we have violence and war going on in the world, the Dalai Lama said that if we can get six-year old kids to meditate today, we can end war and violence in one generation. So perhaps we're not too far away. 

In summer 2016, shortly after you graduated, you were approached by Roozbeh Kaboly, a Dutch TV journalist, to do a reportage about your life under the Syrian civil war. How did he find you?

[26:07] Ahmad: Well, it was so crazy because I got a call  from anonymous number, which means ISIS, because they always called me from anonymous numbers. And then I pick up this call, and they’d start threatening me.  

So I got that call from an anonymous number, and I was like, okay, who is that? And it was a woman's voice. I was like, oh, first time, okay hello. And she said, Hi, I am from the Ministry of Media, and you have a friend request on your Facebook from a journalist, and you did not accept it. And I'm like, how do you know that? She's like, we are the government, we know. I said, well, if you know, you should also respect that. I don't want that. 

And then she said, but you really should, I'm joking with you. You really should look at it, because this is a journalist who wants to work with you. I'm like, okay, I will look at it. So I looked and I found his photo. But that's true, he sent me a friend request, but I didn't accept it because it was written PRESS in here and war things behind him and he has a helmet. And I was like, no, please. 

So I accepted his friend request, and all the messages appeared after on the messenger. And he was like, I want to work with you. And then I texted him back. I'm like, are you in Damascus? And he's like, no, I'm in the Netherlands, but I want to work with you. I'm like how he said, I'm coming to Damascus. I'm like, no, do not come here. It's not safe. And he said, what if I am in Damascus? Would you work with me? I said, well, if you would be here, yes, I would, but I would not ask you to come here.

We kept in touch for a while, and then he disappeared for a little bit. And then he called me, and he was in Damascus. And then we met for lunch. And it was so fun because during the lunch, somebody had a birthday and they were doing the dance hand in hand - the Dapke, what we call. And then we joined, me and him. And he was fascinated how we just can join us - that's Syria, you can just join the dance. 

And then he said, I want to film you dancing and make a reportage about you and these kinds of things. And I was like, okay. And he said, Where do you want to dance? And that moment, that question for me rang a bell. And then I told him, I want to dance in the Yarmouk camp in the street. 

He said, are you crazy? It's under ISIS control, they would kill us. I said, well, we can rent a studio - I cannot pay it, you can rent it, we can rent also a theater if you want - but where I want to dance, I want to dance there. And then he was like, wow, alright, let me think about it. So he thought about it, and he got the permission and everything, and we went. 

And we had some people to protect us from the army because he's from Iranian background also, so to protect the allies (chuckles). So they said, like, you go first. I'm like, I go first, yes I go first. So I went first, and everyone was behind me. 

And then they said, like, stop stop stop, behind that curtain is ISIS. And I'm like, alright, here I want to dance. So I danced there, and he filmed me, and they were shooting at us. And I kept dancing, and it was like, do you want to take a cover? I'm like, no, you go take a cover - I want to dance here. Luckily, we survived it. 

And then after that, we went home. And then my mom was going crazy. She was like, why you didn't take me with you? How do you call her? I was like, yeah, we survived. And she made for us food, and we were having the food. 

And he asked me, alright, Ahmad, he was joking, where do you want to dance again? But don't kill us this time. I'm like, oh well, in Palmyra. He's like, are you crazy? No. And then my mom said, you're not going alone, I'm going with you. So we arranged also permission, and then we went to Palmyra. I didn't talk about it a lot in the media -  we were stopped there and they were negotiating on our life for an hour. But then after that, I don't know what they've done, government stuff. And they told us, you only have 4 hours in here. So I went and I danced there. My mom was the only audience I had, and then we filmed it and we left. 

And he asked me, why did you want to do that? I said, because (in) this theater, not too long ago, minors from ISIS killed people on that stage. And to me, this was the first stage I performed on. I wanted to tell them, this theater is for dance and it's not for killing people. I did this and I danced wearing black, their flag color. And luckily we survived. 

But not too long after that, they bombed the theater. So now I am the last artist who could perform there. It's a pity, it’s a pity. And I still also don't understand why the Syrian government did not protect that theater enough.

[30:59] Jennifer: It's a beautiful theater, it’s this magnificent Roman amphitheater in Palmyra. It was a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it dates back to (the) second century, I believe, and it was destroyed shortly after. And you're known as the last person to have performed there. 

Both of your dances are extremely moving. It's almost surreal in a way, for me, because there's no background music. And when you were dancing in Yarmouk, there were actually even some gunshots in the background.

[31:36] Ahmad: Yes. And the sound of the tractions underneath my feet yeah.

[31:40] Jennifer: That's right. What did you feel when you were dancing at both of these places?

[31:46] Ahmad: It's just a divine feeling, as if I'm floating in the universe. It's crazy to say it. I don't know if people will understand this, but this is how I felt. I felt like I'm just disconnected to this world, and I am in the real world where we all meet without all these titles. 

There is a real world where we can go and meet, all of us, regardless what we have as titles or things we have in this life. I just long (for these) connections and I feel these connections with people - they walk among us here. We have this spirit that lives in us. And if we can connect to it, you will need nothing else for your whole life, believe me. 

This is a secret, it is a secret because you don't want to know about it. But when you want to know about it, you can just dive within yourself, find that spirit and connect to it. And you will glow and you will survive not only guns to your head, you will survive everything - everything.

[32:57] Jennifer: It's the inner light - I absolutely believe it.

[33:00] Ahmad: And there is two ways to connect to it - you sit still, or you dance, dance, dance… to go there.

[33:12] Jennifer: (chuckles) I'm trying, I'm trying with both.

[33:14] Ahmad: In my graduation project, for example, because I just graduated as the first Arabic Ballet Master with a qualified bachelor’s degree from the Dutch National Ballet Academy, and that was July. 

And my graduation project was about spirituality and dance. And in my research, I went back deep in the history and to see, why is it? Why is this happening? I came across that every religion, the way you pray is movements and choreographies. And then I brought them all to my research and I showed it, like why do we move in a certain choreography in praying. 

If we do it with the real feeling, then we connect. And if we just do it as movements, we don't connect. And this is exactly what we do in the dance. If you really feel the movement, then you can connect to the audience. They can see it, and they will be connected to you and feel what you feel. 

[34:07] Jennifer: Well, I love to watch you dance. You have this unique fusion of ballet, Middle Eastern dance, Sufi dance I think, and some modern dance elements. So it was mesmerizing to watch you dance in those two places, for sure.

[34:23] Ahmad: Thank you. I tried to bring every element I went through because what is life, what is world, is your experience. This is your world. And the people around you or the environment around you is the experience and the community you live in. And for me, I have been on the move since I found out that I'm alive. And all of this that adds to me as a person, it also adds to me as an artist. And I just make this mix of movements that can speak to everybody.

[34:54] Jennifer: And it's beautiful, it’s elegant. After the documentary aired on the Dutch television, you received an invitation from the Dutch National Ballet. And this was just a few months before you were supposed to be conscripted in the army. 

You moved to Amsterdam in October 2016. It must have been really difficult for you to leave your family behind in Syria and to have to build such a different and brand new life on your own in Europe. Can you tell us a little bit about your transition in this process and how did you adapt to your new life here?

[35:36] Ahmad: It was very difficult. I had a culture shock, and I was living with this culture shock for 3.5 years, and I also had PTSD. I did not realize that because since I arrived (in) Amsterdam, I was taken immediately to the theater. And the day after, I was in the ballet class at nine in the morning. 

The documentary, they were filming and all this media and interviews and people and dances and premieres. And I remember I was dancing in Coppelia, the ballet, with the Dutch National Ballet. And then I danced all of them, all the shows, which was like, sometimes in the weekend we have, like, soiree and matinee, and I was dancing them two times a day.

And I was hurting because I left my family in a very bad situation, it shows in the documentary how we lived. Even though all of us were working, but in the war, we needed to pay the rent, and the owner was using the situation and making the rent higher and higher every time. I remember my mom was crying sometimes (because) we could not afford the rent. And then I told her, like, I'm going to get another job. So it was really difficult. 

So how do you make me eat while thinking that my family (is) hungry? Or how do you think I could look at the bananas on my table in the house where I lived with two other dancers? and all these eggs and bread? I remember I used to buy bread and put (it) in the freezer, and then my friends were asking me, Why are you doing this? I'm like, what if we need? And they're like, you just go to the supermarket and you get it. I was like, that's true, I'm sorry. (chuckles)

So I needed a lot of time to overcome the culture shock. I went to therapy for 1.5 years after these 3.5 years, because nobody could imagine that I was suffering from something. Because I am a performer and I was performing every day in my daily life, that, yes, I'm happy, thank you, thank you all the time. Thank you, you brought me here. I was afraid to say no to the media or to the documentary or something, because I thought if I say no, they will send me back to Syria. And I was having three interviews per day asking me, how do you feel you're here in Amsterdam and your mom could be punked anytime in Syria. 

What do you think after we finish this interview I would be feeling? I would be crying the whole time. I would go to the garage of the house down underneath and then I would be dancing there by myself like crazy - I felt I'm getting crazy. But then the dance was helping me a lot to process and to express what I feel by myself. 

And I didn't even know how to take the tram around, and I was lost the whole time. Now when I am talking on behalf of refugees, I say please expect these people to not know what is around them, just teach them how to take the tram, teach them where they can buy food or the way of life - that's more important.

For a person who fled his country with PTSD, we don't need what you think we need. I think the most important thing is therapy, mental health. How do you ask somebody to come here and start working without thinking about how would they react to certain situations?

Like, for example, the fireworks. First time, oh god, I arrived (in) October and then the New year, it was so close, three months. And then the fireworks - oh my God, that's the most difficult situation in my life. I needed to see the light of the firework and still I was seeing bombs. The year after, I locked myself up in the toilet. The year after, I also locked myself up.

The fourth year seeing fireworks, they held me in and I needed to look, I needed just to see that this is fireworks. Somebody to keep me in the now and just telling me this is fireworks. Until today, I have this, I have to look and see that it is fireworks. So these kind of stuff are very difficult that I went through when I just moved here. 

Also how people perceived me, it was for me difficult. I came here and there is this media festival around me and I felt everyone wanted a piece of me and that was really bad. 

But now it's so different. Now I'm doing really great, I'm doing very well. Even though becoming more famous, it becomes for me like staying at home, locking the door is peaceful.

[40:15] Jennifer: What an incredible journey! In 2021, you became a Dutch citizen and you published your memoir, also called Dance Or Die, which up until now has been a recurring theme in your life. What motivated you to write this book?

[40:34] Ahmad: I wrote this book, actually, before in Italian with a ghostwriter. It was "Danza O Muori" (Dance or Die in Italian), and the ghostwriter was very sweet. I would record or have a conversation, and he writes, and then I have to look again and redo the things, it took a lot of work. 

But that happened because the Agostini Libri from Milano, they reached out to me after I danced with Roberto Bolle and Sting on “Danza con me” (Italian TV show - “Dance with Me”) on Rai1 (Italian TV channel). That was amazing, that was a dream came true. Also dancing with Roberto, he’s my role model. And then Sting, oh, my God, meeting him was great - such a humble, respectful person - it was amazing to see him. 

So after I did this on Rai1, this publishing house, they said, we want to publish if you have a memoir or you want to write your book. I'm like, well, yes, I write a lot, but it's not professional. They're like, okay, we will get a ghostwriter to make it professional. So we worked on it for a year, and then we published it in Italy. 

But then after that, there was a publisher from the UK that wanted to make it in English before the publisher from America. And after we worked on it, the publisher from the UK told me, we want to change the title because Dance or Die is really hard on the British reader. And then I said to her, I'm sorry, but when I say Dance or Die, I didn't have a British reader. (chuckles) So we stopped the contract.

And then (an) American publisher reached out, they're called Imagine and it's from Penguin Publisher. So they wanted to publish it, and they said, you have the full say on it. It was the Corona times, so I thought, I'm going to rewrite the whole thing, and I'm going to make it one storyline because the Italian (book) is back and forth. And I'm going to put my poetry and my belief about the spirit and the day where my house was bombed - those are not in the Italian version. 

So I rewrote based on my vision. For me it's a true story, even if it's a bad story, but it is a true story. So I'm going to take the risk and put the things how it happened and let's see if people like that or not. So I'm very happy people loved it.

[42:55] Jennifer: I love it. It's a beautifully written book.

[42:58] Ahmad: Thank you. 

[42:59] Jennifer: And it's so captivating. I can't tell you how many times I cried reading it, I think I was bawling the whole time.

[43:06] Ahmad: It is so crazy, I know. I was listening to the audio version of it to review it and everything, I was also crying. 

I wrote the book because I wanted the story to stay alive despite (of) me as a person. This story or the story of this spirit that lives in this body and did this experience on this lifetime has to be told. There is nothing personal in doing this, what I do. It is only for the value of the story that I am very lucky to be living. 

I know I survived death, I know I saw pieces of body, I know I lost five people from my family in the war and I lost all my childhood and everything I had. But I still believe in the value of the story, this is bigger than me. This is not even me as a person, this is the value of the story. That's why I give all my effort to it. I believe in it and I believe it's changing people's life and perspectives about everything. 

It is not easy to be living this life, it is not easy to be here, safe, healthy, while your own mom and your own brother and sister (are) struggling to find utilities - water, just the water. 

You know how they bring water? They buy it through tanks and they transfer it to where they live. And then they put it in the tanks and they wait for it. It's a full production just to get some water to have a shower. It takes you two or three days to arrange it. And here you just open the tap and it comes even warm. (chuckles)

[44:46] Jennifer: I understand you went back to Syria this summer for the first time since you moved to Europe.

[44:52] Ahmad: Yeah. That's why I'm still talking about what is happening there because I'm still processing.

[44:56] Jennifer: What was it like for you to return?

[44:59] Ahmad: Return where? To nowhere, it was return to nowhere. 

I left where my house used to be 11 years ago, and I actually before refused to see any photos of the neighborhood. And I went to visit it and I only found the land, even the rubbles were taken away. I found pieces of floor, I picked up three pieces and I brought them with me here. 

And I sat where I used to sit and look at the sky and imagine my spirit coming towards me. And I just felt so safe in this little square of land that I was surprised that I felt safe there. I danced there, connected to all the spirits of my family. And I stood also holding my book there, where all this, the story of this family who lived here and the streets, that they were full of people celebrating weddings and happy and dancing together. 

I heard all of their voices and I heard all of the struggles and the bombs and everything that is happening. It felt so crazy. It was like the people who lived here, they live forever in this book. And I stood there holding this book. It was just a crazy moment - crazy, crazy moment. 

I had a very big media attack after that against me in the Arabic media. They called me names that made me believe that these people, they will never become better than who they are. They asked people there to attack me, so I had to leave the day after - I had to leave two weeks before I was supposed to leave. I felt now I'm fleeing. Before I did not flee, before I just followed my dreams. But now I had to go. I had to go not because I'm afraid, I had to go to protect what I have here in the Netherlands, which is the nationality, and to keep my family safe, because me being around them, it's dangerous now. I was afraid to be assassinated. 

Yes, I'm going to say it, that's what happened to most of the Arabic activists, artists that made a change. They were assassinated in their own countries. And that's why I left the day after immediately, because I was afraid my family would be harmed by my presence around them. 

That was so heavy on me. But I did what I went there to do, I supported every single person in my family. I helped my grandma who saying Goodbye, the one you read about her in the book, Aisha, she's dying. And when I left, I was by her side. She has a stroke on her brain, so she doesn't even talk, but she could recognize me and she was reacting to me. And I just was by her side, holding her hand. And when I said goodbye to her, she kept her hand open reaching to me, and that broke my heart because I wanted to stay by her side as long as I could. But I had to leave. 

I also did a free dance workshop for dancers. They all came, more than 100 dancers came from different cities. And I was like, wow, I was impressed. They were impressed to see me. And they're like, thank you for coming back here, thank you for teaching us. And all of this, they were like, wow, that day was great. I was also there to film for my movie, and they filmed that when I'm teaching. 

So we did this workshop that was supported by Dance or Die Foundation, also our partners like What Dance Can Do, like Broadway Cares in America. All of these people held this workshop to be there. And it was free of charge for everybody because we got the support from the Foundation. 

And I felt so happy I could do that also. It is Dance or Die here. Here they are, here dancing, and I am teaching them. I am the one who was threatened for being a dancer, passing this for so many dancers that they will pass it also to others.

I could see hope in that. I could see hunger for peace from these people. But also, they need to be freed, they need to be freed. But I do what I can do, and then let's hope for the better future.

[49:27] Jennifer: You're already doing much more than you think that you're capable of. 

Ahmad, these days, besides performing as an artist and working on the movie, you're also an advocate for the UN refugee Agency and the SOS Children's Villages. What are your future goals and aspirations, both in terms of your dance career and your advocacy work?

[49:51] Ahmad: I want my voice to be heard more. I want people to be aware of others, not only for helping others, but also for appreciating what they have. I want to see the world peaceful. I want to never see any stateless person in the world. 

I really hope for statelessness to just vanish. I really hope for people who are born somewhere that they get the first human right that they deserve, which is a nationality. Wherever you are born, you should have a nationality, an identity, a passport that can help you become whoever you want to become. 

I really wish that I would never see a kid struggling, and I just do what I can. And I hope that I will see other artists also taking the advocacy side from their career. Because as artists, art is a very powerful voice. We are powerful people. Artists are strong, use this power, please. 

Look at Cate Blanchett, look at Angelina Jolie - I love them, because we also work for UNHCR. And I'm happy to be in this organization because I dream to be bigger and bigger in helping people. I just wish that my background would not be in my way - I'll just put it in this way of words. But I'm doing what I have to do, here I am doing my best. 

The movie that we're working (on) is going to be called The Dancer. Because here in Amsterdam, everybody called me the Dancer, Oh, Ahmad the dancer, oh, yeah, the dancer. So this is how they know me (chuckles), which is such an honor to me to have this nickname. So the movie will be called The Dancer. 

I gave my all to this movie. We started filming it (in) January in Montana, in America, and not too long ago, we were in Syria. And in ten days, I'm going to Los Angeles to film the last chapter of the movie, the end of the movie. 

But I feel like in making this movie, I'm also giving awareness - it’s not only the book, it's not only the documentary. And the director, Lacey, she believes in my story in a crazy way. And she's doing her best to make this movie reachable to everybody. I love that she doesn't care about what she's getting.

You know, these people that they do the thing for the art, for the sake of art. That's her. And we connect (on) this - so it's such a beautiful, friendly connection, me and her - we're making this movie. And also, the crew, we did a lot of things without even being supported, just from our own effort. 

I reviewed the first hour of the movie. Oh, my God, that's going to be big, that's going to be big. I'm so excited to share it with the world and to see also how they will receive it and their reaction to it. I took a lot of risks. I was also thinking, why am I doing this again? And then again, it's for the value of the story.

So that's what I have been working very hard on the whole year, besides my studies, I graduated, also besides my support for kids and for my family and the earthquake (in Syria). You are a great supporter also, thank you very much for your support, it meant so much to me. We could help also people in Syria and my family during the earthquake. Still, my family (has) not recovered their house but on the way there hopefully we will. 

We will be in a different situation, in a better situation - we are on the way. And I always tell people it doesn't matter about where are you going, what matters is that you are on the way there and making a change and going, you're going there. We will arrive and we will never arrive. But we are going there. We're doing what we have to do. Here I am waking every day up going to my ballet class. Sometimes it's not my day, sometimes it is my day, but I'm still here, I'm working and that's what we should be doing.

[54:03] Jennifer: I think in life what I've learned is that it's the journey that matters, not the destination, because the journey is actually the destination.

[54:13] Ahmad: I believe the beginning of the journey is the destination. That's the start - there when you have arrived, now go further. Because starting the journey is the most difficult decision to be made. To make the choice to start, so you're already there.

[54:27] Jennifer: And sticking with it. 

[54:28] Ahmad: Exactly. The moment I decided to be a dancer, I felt it. I felt what I am today is happening. Everybody thought I'm crazy, starting from my mom. 

When I did the tattoo on my neck, she was like, what did you do? What is this? Get out of here, go get that away from here and come back. And I said, mom, no, I'm staying with it. And then after a while she said remember when I was so angry at you because you made the tattoo? I didn't know this is going to change your life, I'm sorry. I said you see, you should trust me.

[55:04] Jennifer: Ahmad, can you tell us a little bit about your mother? Because when I read the book I just felt so much love from her. And can you just tell us in your word what is your mother like?

[55:17] Ahmad: If I would have a word to describe my mom, it's strong. 

What she went through - it makes me feel ashamed if I'm complaining about something. Her standing up, doing her job, she used to be a teacher and she worked all her life. And she has never shown any weakness even in her most vulnerable situations, even when she lost a baby, she actually lost two. So she is (a) super strong woman, it's a pity that she lives on that side of the world. 

I applied for visa for her just to visit. I would love to have her a month every year to take a break, just to be with me, to eat, to go around, to see this part of the world, and then she can go back. They refused the visa, I don't know. 

My mom, she's very strong. And as I said to you, I feel ashamed complaining about anything when I'm by her side, or to her. she would laugh, and she would say, okay, go do your job. (chuckles) 

I remember we had to bury one of my uncles, and I was standing there, and everyone was crying. And then she looked at me and she said, don't you have to be in the university now? What are you doing here? I said, what do you think, should I go to a dance class while my uncle is..

She said, go to your class right now. I was like, whoa, because in my culture, it's not okay, you have to be there. And she's like, go to your class. I was like okay, I went. And I learned, whatever happens, I have to do what I'm here to do.

[56:54] Jennifer: She's generous, loving, and strong. And I know you talk to her everyday, so when you talk to her tonight, tell her that she has a big fan from this side (chuckles).

[57:04] Ahmad: Thank you. I wish she could be here, I really wish. 

She’s so fun, she's so open minded, she accepts everybody, she likes happiness. She laughs and yeah, fine; we don't have - that’s fine. Let's just have fun and let's go for a walk. Let's go do this, do that. 

And she would not think of herself (in) a selfish way, she’s always thinking of others. And that's what she passed to me - you are what you make people feel.

[57:34] Jennifer: Ahmad, I know you're only in your early 30s, but I feel like you have lived many lives. So, reflecting on your journey so far, what do you hope people would take away from your story?

[57:49] Ahmad: I really hope that people would appreciate their life, that they appreciate their mothers, their family more than what I see here in my daily life. I hope you would give the time to your mom, whoever you are listening to me, just think of your mom right now. Give her a call, tell her you love her, and just that. That would make you feel so good. 

If you have a loving dad, appreciate him, because I did not. If you are supported, enjoy that and pass this support to people who need it. If you are privileged, lucky you, enjoy it, just enjoy it. I don't want people to listen to my story and be thinking of, how do we support this and that financially. Do not. 

Just appreciate what you have, because when you appreciate what you have, you will automatically think of others, and you will do what you can do. Do not do what is more than what you can. Just maybe a smile to somebody in the street could change their life.

[58:54] Jennifer: Absolutely, totally agree. We're soon coming to the end of this episode. Can you tell us what your favorite books are over the years?

[59:05] Ahmad: The Forty Rules of Love: (A Novel of Rumi) - that's one of my favorite books, I have it here. 

And also, Portobello Witch (by) Paolo Coelho - I like it very much. Alchemist, also (by) Paolo Coelho, he's my favorite actually, I almost read everything. I love his beliefs and his writings, and it inspires me a lot, especially Alchemist, taking a journey to look for something, and this thing is just by your side or within you. 

So, yeah, those are my favorite books.

[59:40] Jennifer: And where can people find your book and your foundation online?

[59:44] Ahmad: You can find my book on Google or Amazon. And my foundation is just DanceOrDie.com. Also on my website, AhmadJoudeh.com, you can find my foundation. 

My foundation has been doing a lot, and I feel it is worth supporting. I am a person who looks at things that I do from a different perspective. I look at things outside of me. I get out of this situation, and then I see what should be done. 

And we have a full board for the foundation, we have been doing a lot. And I am the Artistic Director of it. I am the face for it, and I believe we are doing great stuff in this foundation, so I hope it would be supported.

[01:00:27] Jennifer: Thank you very much. And last but not least, what does the Founder Spirit mean to you?

[01:00:32] Ahmad: The Founder Spirit, it connects to my beliefs a lot. And I love the way you talk, the way you believe in things, and I can see connection in there. 

I talk a lot of the beliefs that I have in spirit. And it's so great that also this connection to the name of the Founder Spirit together, so everything is connected.

[01:00:57] Jennifer:  Thank you. We're now coming to the end of our interview, and as you know, we end every episode with a quote. And for this episode, we have a quote from Jonathan Larson. I know it's your favorite quote (chuckles).

[01:01:10] Ahmad: It's my favorite, yes.

[01:01:12] Jennifer: So for this episode, we have a quote from Jonathan Larson, an American composer and playwright,

“The opposite of war isn’t peace. It’s creation.” 

Ahmad, I want to thank you very much for coming on the podcast today and sharing with us your life story. I think we're all very much inspired by your strength and your courage to follow your dreams, and I hope the world will see you perform for a long time to come.

[01:01:40] Ahmad: Thank you very much, thank you.

[01:01:44] Jennifer: If this podcast has been beneficial or valuable to you, feel free to become a patron and support us on Patreon.com, that is P-A-T-R-E-O-N.com/TheFounderSpirit. As always, you can find us on Apple, Google, Amazon and Spotify, as well as social media and our website at TheFounderSpirit.com.

The Founder Spirit Podcast is a partner of the Villars Institute, a nonprofit foundation focused on accelerating the transition to a net zero economy and restoring planetary health. 

[01:02:18] END OF AUDIO

image courtesy of Imagine Books, a client publisher of Penguin Random House

Show Notes

(04:06) Growing Up in Syria

(06:07) The Moment Ahmad Fell in Love with Ballet

(09:29) Intense Opposition from His Father to Pursue His Passion 

(10:13) Ahmad's Sacrifice: Family Responsibility vs. Personal Happiness

(11:35) What Dance Means to Ahmad

(12:30) Dancing Through Hell: Surviving the Syrian Civil War

(16:19) The Healing Power of Dance

(20:54) Dance or Die: A Tattoo of Resilience & Human Spirit

(22:03) Surviving Guns, Bombs and Kidnapping

(26:07) How a Dutch TV Journalist Discovered Ahmad

(31:36) Dancing in Yarmouk & Palmyra with Gunshots as the Background Music

(35:36) Ahmad's Tough Transition to Europe

(40:34) Publishing “Dance or Die: A Memoir:

(49:51) Advocate for the UN Refugee Agency and SOS Children's Villages

(55:17) Ahmad's Remarkable Mother: A Woman of Strength, Patience and Love

(57:49) The Life Lesson: Appreciate What You Have

(01:00:32) What the Founder Spirit Means to Ahmad

Social Media Links:

Ahmad’s Book:

Ahmad’s Favorite Books:

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