'Dance or die': Stateless Syrian ballet dancer Ahmad Joudeh shines on stage

Syrian choreographer Ahmad Joudeh performs on the Human Rights Square in Trocadero
6 min read
12 May, 2023

“I’m living my dream” is how ballet dancer Ahmad Joudeh describes his life. It comes after Ahmad was stateless most of his life and received death threats from ISIS for dancing.

Ahmad was born in the Al-Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, where at least three generations of Palestinian refugees live. In 2016, he moved to the Netherlands after receiving a scholarship from the Dutch National Ballet, where he became a citizen in 2021.

Ahmad graduated from the dance department of Syria’s Higher Institute for Theatrical Art. “I came here as a student. As someone coming from Syria. I’m very lucky to travel to Europe by airplane” Ahmad told The New Arab.

"I grew up in a camp, I know what being a refugee as a little kid means, and by supporting these causes, I want to give an honest voice from experience"

First Steps

Ahmad talked about the richness of Arab culture and how Arab music, poetry, and dance inspired him. “I was lucky enough to have a father who was an artist. He taught us, me and my siblings, music, singing and painting. I sang in a choir while my brother played the oud and my sister played the electric piano and violin. We were like [a] little kid band performing at school.”

When was eight years old Ahmad performed at a girls’ school, “where I saw (the girls) dancing ballet for the first time.” He thought: “Why am I singing? Why I don't just play music with my body like they do?"

Ahmad started to dance alone in his room until his mother found out.

Ahmad Joudeh performs on stage during TED X Vicenza 2018 [Getty Images]
Ahmad Joudeh performs on stage during TED X Vicenza 2018 [Getty Images]

Ahmad's mother promised to enrol him to audition once he was old enough to join a ballet company, “When I become 15 years old, I searched for the ballet dancing company in Damascus. I went there, auditioned and was accepted."

“It started as a little secret between me and my mum. But when my dad found out he was against it, and his family as well, but my mom kept on supporting me. This which led to her divorce, and we had to leave the house together.

“She believed in me, it was difficult to feel that you are the reason for the family breakup.”

While still in Syria, Ahmad began posting videos on his YouTube channel. A Dutch journalist found his videos and interviewed him for a report aired in the Netherlands. The report caught the attention of The Dutch National Ballet, who offered him a scholarship.

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Dance or Die

Ahmad’s house in Syria was bombed and when ISIS took over, he started to get death threats. The messages told him he would be killed if he didn't give up dancing. The threats led him to get a tattoo on his neck, reading “dance or die” in Hindi.

“I chose Hindi because I really appreciate Lord Shiva, the dancing God. If they cut my head, it will be the last thing they see”.

Ahmad was threatened at gunpoint three times. Each time, the gunman decided not to shoot, leaving him to wonder: “Why?”

When he arrived in the Netherlands, Ahmad met with a therapist for a year to learn how to deal with his trauma and PTSD.

Ahmad performed in Europe and other parts of the world, and the same journalist followed him for a year after he moved to the Netherlands, making a documentary about him. The film won an International Emmy Award in 2019.

Ahmad continued attracting the spotlight, He danced in Eurovision representing the Netherlands, which he described as a "huge success."

Ahmad published his autobiography Dance or Die in 2018, first in Italian after dancing with the famous Italian dancer Roberto Bolle, who wrote the introduction to the book. “I got great press in Italy and it was published in English in 2021. I want my story to remain as an inspiration for the people who need inspiration.”

Ahmad Joudeh and Dutch BMX rider Dez Maarsen perform during the second semi-final of the 65th edition of the Eurovision Song Contest 2021 [Getty Images]
Ahmad Joudeh and Dutch BMX rider Dez Maarsen perform during the second semi-final of the 65th edition of the Eurovision Song Contest 2021 [Getty Images]

He also became Amsterdam Pride ambassador in 2022 and 2023. “I define myself as a free-sexual, I don't accept any label. I fall in love with personalities, doesn't matter what kind of body they have. I have never had boundaries in love.”


Asked if he considers himself Syrian: “Of course, before leaving Syria, I always thought I'm Palestinian/Syrian, but when I arrived in the Netherlands when I got my first permit, it was written stateless. That was a huge shock for me. That was the moment that I found out that the refugees in Syria from Palestinian origin are considered stateless”.

“Syria is my everything. I love Syria so much and I am very much connected to the Syrian culture, which I carry with pride, But what hurts me is that Syria is not connected to me, I didn't feel appreciated there, I always feel neglected”.

When Ahmad lived in Syria, he was told “this is not your country”, and “go back to your country". When he heard the same remarks in Europe, he was already familiar with such slurs. 

Although he is known as a Syrian dancer and a choreographer, “people who were born as a refugee in Arab countries were never considered as citizens, they remain stateless.”

Helping Refugees

Ahmad began supporting SOS Children’s Villages, internationally, and he became a high-profile supporter of the UNHCR, in preparation to be a goodwill ambassador, where he is supporting refugees. “I always speak for stateless refugees in particular, I feel this is my duty to give awareness to this problem."

“I grew up in a camp, I know what being a refugee as a little kid means, and by supporting these causes, I want to give an honest voice from experience”.

“Now I live in the Netherlands, I feel at home here, I'm very much supported, and I performed on Liberation Day, 5th of May, with a full orchestra in the presence of the King and Queen of the Netherlands”. Ahmad told The New Arab.

“I belong here, I feel this is my place, it fits my personality,” he said, “I used to ride a bike in Syria where it was weird and people looked at me all the time. Here, it’s the norm. I also like how people are direct in their communication with honesty”.

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Ahmad founded the Dance or Die Foundation to support his dance and humanity work. He received a Global Peace Award in 2018, and a PAX Peace Award in 2017.

He is now doing a master’s degree in dance. He is still hoping that someday he will be appreciated in his homeland.“I grew up neglected. I learned how to stand on my own feet, how to fight for myself, and how to support myself. I think this is the most what I'm happy about, but I'm proud of everything I've done”.

Ahmad's dream is to found a ballet company in Syria that would teach a mixture of ballet, Arab dance and Sufi movements, “bringing all of this together", and create a new form of dance and method inspired by Ahmad Joudeh. 

Nazeeha Saeed is a Bahraini journalist, working with international media platforms. She has been advocating for women's rights and freedom of expression for the past 12 years through articles and collaboration with different regional and international media outlets. Nazeeha is also the recipient of the Johann Philipp Palm Award for Freedom of Speech & Press 2014, and the Heikal Arab press award 2021. She is also a member of The Marie Colvin Journalists' Network

Follow her on Twitter: @nazihasaeed