DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — One, two, three, stop. Five, six, seven, stop: A group of young Syrian men and women step, sway and twirl to the backdrop of salsa music, dancing their worries away.
For an hour a week in a Damascus studio, their instructor Adnan Mohammed, 42, teaches a class the basics of Latin dancing, helping his students forget the troubles of war — if even briefly.
“They come out a different person," Mohammed says.
For his students, ballroom dancing is a form of release, finding their rhythm in music away from their country’s many social and economic pressures. For that one hour, they push Syria's 11-year war from their minds, the politics, the anxiety over the economic crisis and the country's constantly depreciating currency.
“They put that energy aside and they start to be optimistic," Mohammed added. “I believe we are giving them the energy to stay in the country. Now there is a reason for them to stay.”
Syria’s war, which erupted in 2011 following a deadly crackdown on anti-government protests, has killed over half a million people and displaced half the country’s pre-war population of 23 million. With the military help of allies Russia and Iran, Syrian President Bashar Assad has managed to crush the armed uprising against him except for a few areas that remain outside of government control.
For the past several years, conflict lines have been largely frozen, but the war has wreaked unfathomable destruction on the country. A severe economic crisis has set in, with many barely managing to make ends meet.
Mohammed, who opened a dance school 15 years ago, says people still kept coming to his classes throughout the war. But the biggest blow was when the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down, even his studio.
With pandemic restrictions now mostly lifted, students have returned to class, looking for a brief respite, a temporary escape.
“People are exhausted nowadays, we can sense a lot of frustration,” said Yara Zarin, an engineer who’s also an instructor at the Dance Nation school, where Mohammed teaches.
Zarin explains that the school's goal is not to have their students disconnect from reality but to provide the space where, for “an hour or two ... you can be yourself.”
The dance schools offer classes during the week but also dance parties. Small performances have made a comeback in the country recently, particularly in and around Damascus.
Last month, a techno dance party organized at an abandoned cement factory just outside Damascus attracted hundreds of youngsters. Complete with a laser show, music and dancing, it was one of the biggest such events since the war started.
Ballroom dancing schools were popular before the war among some segments of society, including three large schools in Damascus that have withstood the war.
For student Amar Masoud, the dance classes are a “breath of life.”
“Sometimes, I end up missing classes because I have to work," he says. “But I still try as much as possible to" come to the school.
Mohammed, the instructor, has a second day job to keep up with expenses. He pleads for government support, to help bring back dance to a more organized setting and to how it was before the war. He dreams of representing Syria in international events.
“There needs to be a federation created just for dance so that this can be like before the war, where we would go and represent Syria in Arab and Asian countries,” he said.
For Maya Marina, 30, dancing is a desperately needed outlet from war and hardship for her.
“Music takes us to another world,” she says. "Here I blow off steam, it’s a respite from the pressures, the anger, the difficulties.”