LA woman uses belly dancing to overcome trauma of nightclub shooting

A woman who was shot in a horrific nightclub attack has revealed how belly dancing helped her heal from the traumatic assault.

Nurjahan Boulden, 36, from Los Angeles, California, was in Toronto, Canada, for a wedding in July 2006 when she and her friends decided to go to Volume nightclub. She was on the roof terrace when a gunman opened fire. 

The dancer, who was 21 at the time, was shot in the shin, leaving her lower leg shattered. She laid on the ground next to a man who was killed in the gang-related shooting as she waited for paramedics to arrive.

Overcoming trauma: Nurjahan Boulden, 36, from Los Angeles, California, turned to belly dancing to heal her both physically and mentally a decade after she was shot in the leg

Overcoming trauma: Nurjahan Boulden, 36, from Los Angeles, California, turned to belly dancing to heal her both physically and mentally a decade after she was shot in the leg

Overcoming trauma: Nurjahan Boulden, 36, from Los Angeles, California, turned to belly dancing to heal her both physically and mentally a decade after she was shot in the leg

Horrific: The dancer, who was 21 at the time, was shot in the shin, leaving her lower leg shattered, when a gunman opened fire at Volume nightclub in Toronto, Canada

Horrific: The dancer, who was 21 at the time, was shot in the shin, leaving her lower leg shattered, when a gunman opened fire at Volume nightclub in Toronto, Canada

 Horrific: The dancer, who was 21 at the time, was shot in the shin, leaving her lower leg shattered, when a gunman opened fire at Volume nightclub in Toronto, Canada

‘All of a sudden I felt a vibration in my leg. There was no warning that anything bad was going to happen.’ she said. ‘I fell facedown onto 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.’

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.

The police never found the gunman who killed one man and injured Nurjahan and another party-goer that night. 

A week later she flew back to the US and, against medical advice, immediately returned to college. 

Looking back: Nurjahan and her friends (pictured the night of the shooting) went out to the nightclub in July 2006 while in Toronto for a wedding

Looking back: Nurjahan and her friends (pictured the night of the shooting) went out to the nightclub in July 2006 while in Toronto for a wedding

Looking back: Nurjahan and her friends (pictured the night of the shooting) went out to the nightclub in July 2006 while in Toronto for a wedding 

Loss: She spent 30 minutes lying next to man who was shot in the head and bleeding out as she waited for paramedics to arrive. The man did  not survive

Loss: She spent 30 minutes lying next to man who was shot in the head and bleeding out as she waited for paramedics to arrive. The man did  not survive

Loss: She spent 30 minutes lying next to man who was shot in the head and bleeding out as she waited for paramedics to arrive. The man did  not survive 

‘I just pretended that everything was OK. I went into my senior year in a wheelchair because my leg was shattered,’ she recalled. ‘I didn’t have great healthcare, so I didn’t get a boot or physical therapy.’  

Nurjahan had been dancing from the moment she learned to walk, but she did not dance again for 10 years after the shooting because she found it too painful. 

Instead of pursuing her dream of becoming a dancer, she became a teacher after 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. 

Trying to move on: Nurjahan (pictured in the hospital after the shooting) flew back to the US a week later and, against medical advice, immediately returned to college

Trying to move on: Nurjahan (pictured in the hospital after the shooting) flew back to the US a week later and, against medical advice, immediately returned to college

Trying to move on: Nurjahan (pictured in the hospital after the shooting) flew back to the US a week later and, against medical advice, immediately returned to college

Hard to handle: Nurjahan gave up her dream of becoming a dancer and became a teacher instead. She suffered from panic attacks and flashbacks for a decade

Hard to handle: Nurjahan gave up her dream of becoming a dancer and became a teacher instead. She suffered from panic attacks and flashbacks for a decade

Hard to handle: Nurjahan gave up her dream of becoming a dancer and became a teacher instead. She suffered from panic attacks and flashbacks for a decade 

‘We went to a bar and someone slapped the bar and I just started crying,’ she said. ‘Another time a car backfired and I just started screaming and crying.’

In April 2016, Nurjahan attended an event where Rhonda Foster spoke 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.

Life-changing: In April 2016, Nurjahan attended an event where Rhonda Foster (pictured) spoke about how her seven-year-old son Evan had been shot dead in a park

Life-changing: In April 2016, Nurjahan attended an event where Rhonda Foster (pictured) spoke about how her seven-year-old son Evan had been shot dead in a park

Life-changing: In April 2016, Nurjahan attended an event where Rhonda Foster (pictured) spoke about how her seven-year-old son Evan had been shot dead in a park

Unforgettable moment: Rhonda was the first one who told Nurjahan she is a 'survivor'

Unforgettable moment: Rhonda was the first one who told Nurjahan she is a 'survivor'

Unforgettable moment: Rhonda was the first one who told Nurjahan she is a ‘survivor’ 

Family: Nurjahan and her husband Charles, 43, a school principal, have three children: Beau, 11, Za'eem, eight, and Hezekiah, five.

Family: Nurjahan and her husband Charles, 43, a school principal, have three children: Beau, 11, Za'eem, eight, and Hezekiah, five.

Family: Nurjahan and her husband Charles, 43, a school principal, have three children: Beau, 11, Za’eem, eight, and Hezekiah, five.

‘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 her story inspired Nurjahan to start belly dancing again.

‘My leg had never fully recovered,’ she explained. ‘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,’ she continued. ‘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.

Recovery: After having surgery on her leg at age 29, she got over her fear of not being able to dance as she used to by dancing wildly down the street three times a week

Recovery: After having surgery on her leg at age 29, she got over her fear of not being able to dance as she used to by dancing wildly down the street three times a week

Recovery: After having surgery on her leg at age 29, she got over her fear of not being able to dance as she used to by dancing wildly down the street three times a week

Making a difference: Nurjahan danced in public for six months until she was able to run and belly dance again She  now teaches belly dancing as a form of healing

Making a difference: Nurjahan danced in public for six months until she was able to run and belly dance again She  now teaches belly dancing as a form of healing

Making a difference: Nurjahan danced in public for six months until she was able to run and belly dance again She  now teaches belly dancing as a form of healing

‘I grew up belly dancing from the time that I could walk,’ she said. ‘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 belly dancing 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,’ she said. ‘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.

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