Fadi J Khoury On Finding Peace Through Art

Fadi J Khoury

Fadi J Khoury On Finding Peace Through Art

Fadi uses his passion for dance to help children transcend their difficult circumstances

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Finding Peace Through Art

In war-torn regions, children often face unimaginable hardships, from terror and poverty to isolation and trauma. Too many end up as displaced children. 
 
Amidst this turmoil, acclaimed dancer and choreographer Fadi J Khoury, founder and artistic director of FJK Dance, offers a beacon of hope. Born in Iraq and now a celebrated artist in New York City, Fadi uses his passion for dance to help children transcend their difficult circumstances. In this interview, he shares his journey, the healing power of art, and practical tips for team leaders on the ground to engage children in creative activities, helping them navigate their emotions and envision a brighter future.
Fadi J Khoury dance
Fadi J. Khoury’s innovative style – both as dancer and choreographer – showcases his life-long immersion in a world of dance forms.

Finding Peace Through Dance

Fadi’s story aligns with CPI's mission of using art to transform lives in challenging environments.

In Fadi's interview with CPI, he talks about how art saved him during Iraq's war-torn years, providing an outlet for expression and a path to inner peace. He emphasizes that exposure to art helps children think beyond their harsh realities, fostering creativity and self-esteem.

Fadi J Khoury

“Dance gave me access to communicating in a peaceful way, and then I realized that I have the capacity to create a sense of peace in times where we don’t even think it matters.”

Fadi J. Khoury

artist

 

Born in Baghdad, Iraq, Fadi was surrounded by the folkloric music and dance of Arab culture. His father was the artistic director of the National Iraqi Ballet. At the age of 17, Fadi moved to Beirut, Lebanon, where he trained in array of dance forms – from classical ballet to jazz.

Ultimately, he came to New York City, where he trained with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Why CPI Wanted to Speak to Fadi

CPI sought to speak with Fadi because of his unique background in war-torn Iraq, where he developed a path in life through art. Art provided him with a direction that he continues to pursue.

In this regard, he exemplifies what CPI seeks to accomplish in the challenging places where it operates. 

If children can experience themselves as creative, they will be equipped to lead more fulfilling lives.  Even if they don’t become professionals like Fadi, they will begin to think beyond the war, poverty, and cultural isolation of their young lives.

Art as a Lifeline

Children in Sri Lanka Singing and Dancing during CPI workshop.
Girls in Sri Lanka interpret a story through dance.

Fadi experienced firsthand how art, particularly dance, provided him with an outlet and a means to express himself amidst the turmoil of war.

Adult Reactions & Understanding

Fadi emphasizes how dance, particularly during his formative years in war-torn Iraq, played a pivotal role in shaping his identity and providing an essential outlet for self-expression.

Resilience & Self Discovery

Through artistic expression, children can develop resilience and discover aspects of themselves that go beyond the challenges they face.

Cultural Acceptance

Tailoring arts programs to fit within the cultural context of war-torn regions can facilitate greater acceptance and participation among children and their communities.

Holistic Development

Boys in refugee camp embracing during play and storytelling event

Arts education not only enhances artistic skills but also promotes emotional and psychological well-being, essential for children growing up amidst conflict.

Interview With Fadi J Khoury

CPI: Could you share how dance helped you discover your personality, purpose, and the best way to express yourself?

At this stage in my life, I know exactly the impact of my exposure to the arts, and to being able to tap into that creative. In times of real war and violence [in Iraq], I was so lucky to be exposed to art through my father, my family. So, the fact that I was able to be the creative artist that I was in my childhood, gave me the strength to keep going. At that time, it was the only positive outlet that I could share with, and use to communicate with others. In the world of terror and violence and wars, peace is the alternative. Peace is on the other side. So, consider how peaceful it is to make someone smile because of a beautiful dance, or because of a beautiful drawing. Dance gave me access to communicating in a peaceful way, and then I realized that I can create a sense of peace in times when we don’t even think it matters.Growing up and realizing that that talent was an instrument for others, empowered me to use it and take a chance on it.  It’s almost like you feel that if everybody loves you that much, then you’re going to have to do it. So, it was like following my path ever since I was a child.

CPI: In your formative years, art was crucial to your development. This idea applies to our work; CPI is focused on nurturing children’s creativity to shape the kind of people they will become; help set them on a path for continued growth.

I think the most immediate problem we face as artists, whether we’re young or old, is rejection, and the objection to what we do and why we’re doing it. While it displays different nuances, that rejection reduces the motivation of any artist at any stage. 

But in children, there is this freshness, this energy and capacity to generate new and bizarre perspectives, that adults cannot anticipate because our perspectives are already formed.

Children should be given the chance, and specifically, support, to express themselves. It would help if you motivated the child to take risks, to make mistakes, to engage in trial-and-error. Then you celebrate their production, whether it’s a “success” or not.

So, the power of ChildsPlay is the exposure it gives these children, whether or not they become artists. It’s the chance to just be exposed, and to normalize the fact that they like to draw a rose, or an elephant.  This is powerful, and it builds a sense of self-esteem that is required in any field so you can be a leader — or just lead yourself.

 

children in uganda use chairs as desks while drawing after storytelling session
Children in a CPI-Youth Sports Uganda storytelling workshop in Kampala, Uganda, use chairs when drawing the story.

“You came from a background where self-expression was accepted, but for many children we work with, self-expression isn’t valued. How do you help them embrace these forms when their parents may not approve?

I think a more apt description would be “inspiration.” Inspiration or motivation is an interesting positive approach in the context of children and youth. We are mostly at-power in motivating their action, so we should just approach them where they are. Even though I was the son of an artist, and I knew what it was like to be in theater and ballet, I wasn’t allowed to do it when I was a child. There was no way I was going to go to ballet school in that time, when I was six years or seven years old. So, what you see outside the dream that I was living in, is the reality that kids go to school, and programs in school may instigate or provide. Sometimes in the Middle East, this is useful. It’s usually folkloric dance, which is culturally accepted. In the region, it will be automatically accepted by the children, because that’s something that their parents accept. So, in a strategic way, you expose the children to dance from an angle that is appropriate in their society. They’re exposed to the chance of moving, using their body, listening to the music. The important element that we have to take care of is that acceptance. that “Yes, go for it” as opposed to the rejection of “No, what are you doing?”

As children, they will love the movement, and joyful energy that comes with dancing that is always celebrated in youth.

Formalizing it is tricky because then you’re working with children’s attention. But in general, movement is always fun. Movement is always more run-around-and-stop. and raise-your-arm, and put-your-arms-down. You must see where the children are in their community, their families, their backgrounds.

When I moved to Lebanon as a teen-ager, one thing I did while in school was to teach traditional dance. I used to teach at the orphanage on the poor side of Beirut.

Because I was a popular dancer in school, and because people knew me from weddings, people would ask me, “Why don’t you come and teach these kids once a week?” Because the tradition is accepted, I was able to teach them, and it was fun, and cute, and exciting. But they didn’t really take it as seriously at that point. Now, though, I’m thinking about the kids that I used to see and nurture; and build a bond with; and how kind and positive the experience of communal dancing was; and what it’s like to build this positive experience with your body at a young age. It’s physical intelligence, intelligence in your body. That’s emotionally impactful.

Dance is Intelligence in Your Body

We (New Yorkers) think of “learning” in a very practical and goal-oriented way. But the reality in places where CPI works is that children are much older than then we know children are here. You’ll be surprised at the amount of attention available in a Kenyan four-year-old, compared to a four-year-old in Manhattan. That’s why it’s hard to determine specific “age.” Typically, though, among our privileged peers, six is the age where they can comprehend articulation and alignment, and you can develop real information. It’s the same in gymnastics before six years old, where the work is more motivational and supportive of the child’s perception of their skills. After six years old, they will start to develop their physical and muscle memory, which will build their growth and the architecture of their body. For females, it’s faster than for males. So, male dancers have that awareness by eight years old, but in females by six years old.

CPI: Do children prefer improvising or learning specific dance steps related to a story? In short, why do kids get excited and engaged with dance?

FK: Your name, Childsplay, is the answer — children like to play. So, children’s attention will first go towards play. Play is interesting when they play together, when they succeed in the game. The game has all kinds of rules, and patterns, and pathways. As a teacher, you dictate the rules of the game. But we must admit that those children are more creative than we can be because they follow the rules according to their own temperament, based on their interests, their passion, and their boredom. If you see the children bored, you must change the rules and follow their interests.

So, in dance, intellectuality and artistry dictate all the results. But when you work with children, children lead you to what could happen. The dance is like an umbrella, where there will be music. It’s like the playground game that we’re playing, with togetherness among all the kids. The teacher is really the fun part of the game. So, it’s a state of mind that a dance teacher has to get into.

CPI: You provide enough structure for kids to understand what to do, but leave room for their imagination. The challenge for teachers and adults is to adapt to this balance between structure and creativity.

Yes, artistically, even as adults in the most advanced and professional rooms where we create dance, we still hope to build something. The connection between the creative source and the creative engine, or the instrument is really a give-and-take. It’s an action-reaction, and if we make an analogy to the children, then typically we hope from our adult artists that they’ll be as open and as free in their approach. We want to be there in the room to create something new, the same way that children are not able to conform.  We behave, we are conformed to what is right and wrong, with so much information – even more than in the rules of the game. Whereas children, they will challenge your rules. It’s beautiful, and fascinating to experience it.

CPI: What advice would you give teachers and adults to overcome their discomfort with letting go of strict structure?

Adult teachers must first understand whether they are willing to do this work and communicate it to children. If the intention is there, if the heart is in the right place, then they want to be curious about the children. They know what they value and the importance of the dance to be executed, but the child will precede them. So, if their intention in doing this work is authentic, they will be just as intuitive as the child. Then it’s really a communication. It’s an interaction, action-reaction. If they go in with kindness, while their intention is in the right place, it’s like a joy. It’s fine, right?

CPI: How can teachers shift from being strict instructors to enablers, providing guidance and encouragement while allowing children the freedom to be themselves and be creative, especially when they are more accustomed to rigid structures?

Yes, it’s the expectations with which a lot of teachers go into these experiences that almost paralyze the process. If you’re married to your expectations, then the attention span is probably 50% of what you think it should be. Some teachers will improvise and move forward, while some will be really, really affected.

So, it’s crucial to train the teachers to know exactly how much of their preconceptions matter, because most teachers must be shocked in the beginning to realize that their curriculum is in their way of teaching. The common complaint of all teachers is that we must finish this curriculum, to finish this program. Ironically. while they do that, they still must improvise the way they can achieve that objective/. 

Fadi J Khoury On  Finding Peace Through Art

"When we talk about achieving inner peace, the struggle to survive often takes precedence. Taking time to train and hone your craft competes with trying to make money, find a job, or avoid being murdered or kidnapped. As adults, we have the privilege to focus on our bodies. But for children in danger, exercise and movement don't have the same impact. It’s hard for them to focus on such things when they are living in terror."

Fadi J Khoury

CPI: How does movement help a child find inner peace? How can we guide teachers to feel comfortable letting go and allowing children to explore this?

It’s almost straightforward. Any simple physical exercise is a physical experience of positive energy in the body, and the hormonal response to this activity is extremely positive. So inner peace comes from the state of mind when we are physically in motion. That includes the entire body with respect to your flexibility, your joints, your weight, your strength standing up on the ground. All this work is there for you. So, the action of any given moment and dance involves utilizing these forces to physically witness and experience these positive energies.


Another thing that I find interesting is the idea of having a ritual. Maybe it doesn’t have to be a ritual per se, but putting a kind of frontier, install something to mark an end. For example, you can do a drawing or create something, and then you have a box and you put it in the box. It doesn’t have to be something concrete neither, it could be imaginary, and then, “Okay, it’s in the box. I know it’s there. It’s safe. If I want to go back to it, I can just take the box back, but I’m in control.” So, these are some ideas.

displaced girl drawing during storytelling session
CPI includes drawing in storytelling to help children express complex emotions and ideas that they might struggle to verbalize. Drawing allows children to communicate their feelings and experiences in a visual format, providing a therapeutic outlet and a means for adults to understand their inner world better.

CPI: Our Storytelling program is growing fast. How does storytelling influence physical expression in dance, making it a narrative form rather than just pure movement?

In this case, the children become the instrument of the story, It’s a broad dance experience. It’s a human experience. What we do is diversified.  Dance is an experience of the body, music, and time. It’s really a platform for any purpose. We dance to celebrate being happy. We danced to mourn, to pray. So, our description of dance as a performance is where we limit ourselves to what dance means.

In the context of storytelling, dance is a great instrument because it’s free of verbiage, of grammar, of political correctness. The body is the most relatable central element that a reader, for example, can communicate with. When people see each other dance and understand that some recording stopped, it’s still very it’s very impactful.

Girls learning the art of mask-making and sculpting during mask-making workshop in May, 2023.
Girl in Haiti painting mask
Girl smiling during mask-making workshop in Haiti
Haiti 2023 - One of CPI and Didier Civil's talented mask students. In Haiti, traditional mask-making is a celebrated art form. Our program is the first that trains girls.

CPI: How can CPI integrate storytelling with kids’ dancing to create a multi-dimensional experience?

It comes down to the way it’s directed. In this case, the children become the instrument of the story, and the storyteller will direct this “instrumentation.” Now, that experience is choreographed, which doesn’t always have to be “Let’s do this step and then this step and then this step.” But the structure of that process can include space and time, the music, and where children are expected to come together. “All come together in a circle, and we’ll all move in different directions,” can then mean something. Or the way we choreograph it is that when the kids hear that, the fluid starts, and everyone’s going to run into the corner and raise their arms, and then look to the audience – basically, things like that would mean they have the freedom to literally run from point A to point B, and perform a thing that they will now build a reason for. In that way, the story becomes an active, as opposed to a structured, dictated text.

Older children – teenagers, for example — may go into more concrete and real-life stories. I remember we had this drama workshop, and a girl shared about domestic violence at home with the class because she felt comfortable. She felt safe in that place, and nobody asked her to talk and about that. So, it was something that she personally wanted to do, and the other kids — the other adolescents — listened and provided support without overreacting. Some went to see her at the end of the workshop, and just supported her.

Sometimes when we are the group leader, we lead the workshop, we facilitate the workshop, then it’s harder for us to have confidence that the group will hold and contain everything.

CPI: Is teaching a kind of spontaneous improvisation?

It comes down to the way it’s directed. It’s giving leverage to the to the child to have their own experience within the common goal of what we want to achieve. While it’s easy to teach steps, not everyone will do them perfectly. We expect children not to do things perfectly because they’re children. But when you motivate children all to say one thing, in their own way, and they’re envoys at their own speed, then they will do it and all yell at the same time. Then you will get a group. So I think that we should take a chance on the way we teach, instead of its being a “curriculum” and steps to follow and achieve. We need to be creative in how we encourage children to express themselves.

Storytelling

CPI: Do you think teachers without dance training can effectively motivate children to engage in storytelling through dance?

Passion is universally understood and infectious. When someone in a room exudes passion and dedication, others naturally listen and follow.

Conversely, having an unmotivated teacher compromises the depth and value of any creative art form, be it dance, painting, or writing. Teaching art isn’t just about imparting information; it requires teachers who are deeply passionate and excited about their craft.

As a child, I keenly felt whether a teacher was genuinely interested in their subject. Only those who were truly engaged could capture my attention.

Engaging teachers can command a room with their presence and enthusiasm, drawing others in.

Throughout my career as a teacher, director, producer, and fundraiser, my success has been rooted in my passion for what I do. This authenticity and love for dance have been integral to my journey. Applying this same authentic passion to teaching any subject can lead to significant success and impact.

CPI:  How do we practically find passionate teachers/(team leaders), give them basic guidelines, and help them overcome self-consciousness to teach children how to express stories through dance?

FK: I think if the teacher is passionate about the craft that they’re teaching, then you’re just guiding them into a game plan or a strategy reach where we want to go. It really empowers them to take the lead in that process, especially because, in teaching children, you should be an improviser. You should follow their energy and their pace.

The last time I worked with children, they weren’t really children, but they were young enough. In Japan when I created a ballet of 41 dancers, I worked with 14-and 15-year-olds.

Girls dancing in Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, girls would interpret the story through dance.

CPI: How can we effectively channel your creative energy to help children become comfortable with expressing themselves creatively through integrating dance into storytelling?

Absolutely. In certain cultures, dance is in their nature, and in their livelihood and even in their human events.  So, it’s important to know how you can utilize dance where you are in on the planet.

CPI: How do we navigate the challenge of helping people give themselves permission to be passionate about art/ dance while providing enough structure so they feel supported rather than overwhelmed?

It’s important to find the voices among the people you work with that will amplify the power of motivation that has to come before the work itself.

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