A woman shot in an horrific nightclub attack has told how BELLY DANCING helped her heal from the traumatic assault.
Nurjahan Boulden, 36, was on the roof terrace of the Volume nightclub in Toronto, Canada, when a gunman opened fire.
She was shot in the shin, leaving her lower leg shattered, and waited 30 minutes for paramedics to arrive, lying on the ground next to a man who died in the gang-related shooting.
Nurjahan started belly dancing as a child from the moment she learned to walk, but did not dance again for 10 years after the shooting as she found it too painful.
But she now credits the sensual dance, as well as sharing her story, with helping her recover emotionally and physically from the attack.
Mother-of-three Nurjahan, from Los Angeles, California, even teaches belly dancing to fellow gun violence survivors to help them recover from trauma.
The dance teacher and writer was in Toronto for a wedding in July 2006 when she and her friends decided to go to the Volume nightclub.
Nurjahan, who was 21 at the time, said: “All of a sudden I felt a vibration in my leg. There was no warning that anything bad was going to happen.
“I fell face down on to the concrete and I heard bullets spraying. I kept saying: ‘I got shot, I got shot’. The whole of my bottom half went numb.
“When the bullets stopped flying, I was laying there on the concrete and there was a man three feet away from me who was bleeding.
“He had been shot twice in the chest and once in the head. For 30 minutes, I lay there watching him bleed out.
“When the paramedics came, they put a tarp over him so I knew he didn’t make it.”
The police never found the gunman who killed one man and injured Nurjahan and another party-goer that night.
Nurjahan was taken to St Michael’s Hospital where doctors told her that she was lucky to be alive as the bullet had just missed her artery.
A week later she flew back to the US and, against medical advice, immediately returned to college.
She added: “I just pretended that everything was OK. I went into my senior year in a wheelchair because my leg was shattered.
“I didn’t have great healthcare, so I didn’t get a boot or physical therapy.”
Instead of pursuing her dream of becoming a dancer, Nurjahan became a teacher after a college.
She met her husband Charles, 43, a school principal, and had three children – Beau, 11, Za’eem, eight, and Hezekiah, five.
“Throughout all of this, I had panic attacks and flashbacks,” she said.
“All I could think about was the man who was dying next to me.
“I was constantly terrified for my life and my children’s lives.
“I bought ladders for everyone on the second floor of my office building in case a shooter came.
“I was terrified to take my kids to school after the Sandy Hook shooting.”
While celebrating her 30th birthday in Mexico, Nurjahan again experienced traumatic flashbacks.
“We went to a bar and someone slapped the bar and I just started crying.
“Another time a car backfired and I just started screaming and crying.”
In April 2016, Nurjahan attended an event where Rhonda Foster shared about how her seven-year-old son Evan had been shot dead in a park.
“She was standing there and saying her worst nightmare out loud,” Nurjahan recalled.
“I went up to her afterwards and told her how much it meant to me to hear her.
“I told her I had experienced gun violence.
“She was the first person to look at me and say: ‘You’re a survivor’.”
Rhonda invited Nurjahan to speak about her experience the next month at an event organized by the group Women Against Gun Violence.
“I decided to go through the excruciating process of writing my story down,” Nurjahan said.
“I would say all of it – how a stranger at the hospital had had to remove my tampon, how my mom had to give me sponge baths after the shooting because I couldn’t wash myself, the guilt I felt about the man next to me who had died.
“When I climbed off stage there were 300 people standing and clapping for me.
“I felt relief – I had had so much shame around the shooting.”
Sharing the story of the shooting inspired Nurjahan to start belly dancing again.
“My leg had never fully recovered.
“I had a really hard time with insurance and doctors.
“Finally when I was 29, a CT scan revealed that there was still a hole in my bone.
“I got a rod and screws put into my leg but I still couldn’t run – I realized that the physical pain was attached to the emotional pain.
“One of my biggest fears about dancing again was that I wouldn’t be able to dance like I used to.
“So I decided to dance as sillily and wildly as possible down a public street to get over that fear.
“I did that three times a week for six months until I was able to run again and play soccer and belly dance.”
While belly dancing is often considered a sexual performance, Nurjahan explained that the dance form was linked to her mother’s upbringing in Tanzania in East Africa.
“I grew up belly dancing from the time that I could walk.
“My mom’s family is from Tanzania and belly dancing is a part of her culture.
“It’s not performative – it’s only with other women.
“In western media, belly dancing is a sexual thing but in my culture it’s about women coming together in community and celebrating each other.”
Nurjahan now teaches the dance as a form of healing – even instructing her students to dance naked in front of the mirror.
“I teach belly dance as a way of healing and a way of connection with your body.
“It can help you heal from any trauma you’ve been through, whether that’s gun violence or shame around your body.
“One of the assignments I give to my students is to strip down naked in front of the mirror and dance and think nothing but good thoughts.
“I tell them to keep practicing that every day until they actually feel those good thoughts.”
Nurjahan also hosts a twice-monthly clubhouse where survivors of gun violence can share their own experiences and receive support.