A woman shot in a horrific attack at a nightclub has revealed how belly dancing helped her heal from the traumatic attack.
Nurjahan Boulden, 36, of Los Angeles, California, was in Toronto, Canada, for a wedding in July 2006, when she and her friends decided to head to the 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 tibia, shattering her lower leg. She was lying on the floor next to a man who died in the gang-related shooting as she waited for the ambulance to arrive.
Overcoming trauma: Nurjahan Boulden, 36, of Los Angeles, California, turned to belly dancing to heal her both physically and mentally, ten years after she was shot in the leg
Horrific: Dancer, then 21, was shot in the tibia, shattering her lower leg, when a gunman opened fire at Volume nightclub in Toronto, Canada
‘Suddenly I felt a tremor in my leg. There was no warning that anything bad was going to happen.’ she said. “I fell face down on the concrete and heard bullets spray. I kept saying, “I got shot, I got shot.” My whole lower half went numb.”
“When the bullets stopped flying, I was lying there on the concrete and there was a man a few feet away from me who was bleeding. He had been shot twice in the chest and once in the head.
“I lay there for 30 minutes watching him bleed to death. 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 she was lucky to be alive as the bullet had just missed her artery.
Police never found the gunman who killed a man that night and injured Nurjahan and another partygoer.
A week later, she flew back to the US and, against medical advice, went straight back to college.
Looking back: Nurjahan and her friends (pictured the night of the shooting) went to the nightclub in July 2006 while in Toronto for a wedding
Loss: She lay next to the man who was shot in the head for 30 minutes and was bleeding as she waited for paramedics to arrive. The man did not survive
“I just pretended everything was okay. I went into my senior year in a wheelchair because my leg was shattered,” she recalls. “I didn’t have good health care, so I didn’t get a boot or physical therapy.”
Nurjahan has been dancing since she learned to walk, but she stopped dancing 10 years after the shooting because she thought it was 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.
“During all this, I had panic attacks and flashbacks,” she said. “All I could think about was the man dying next to me. I was constantly terrified for my life and that of my children.
“I bought ladders for everyone on the second floor of my office building in case a gunman 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 hospital after the shooting) flew back to the US a week later and, against medical advice, immediately returned to university
Difficult to handle: Nurjahan gave up on her dream of becoming a dancer and became a teacher instead. She suffered from panic attacks and flashbacks for ten years
“We went to a bar and someone hit the bar and I just started crying,” she said. “Another time a car turned off and I just started yelling 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 stood there and said her worst nightmare out loud,” Nurjahan recalled. “I went 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 to look at me and say, ‘You’re a survivor.'”
Rhonda invited Nurjahan to speak about her experience the following month at an event hosted by the group Women Against Gun Violence.
“I decided to go through the excruciating process of writing my story,” Nurjahan said. “I’d say it all – how a stranger in the hospital had to remove my tampon, how my mother 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
Unforgettable moment: Rhonda was the first to tell 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.
“When I climbed off the podium, 300 people were clapping in front of me. I felt relieved – I was so ashamed of the shooting.’
Sharing her story inspired Nurjahan to take up belly dancing again.
“My leg 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 in my leg, but I still couldn’t run. I realized that the physical pain was connected 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 down a public street as foolishly and wildly as possible to overcome that fear,” she continued. ‘I did that three times a week for six months, until I could run and play football and belly dance again.’
While belly dancing is often considered a sexual performance, Nurjahan explained that the dance form was related to her mother’s upbringing in Tanzania, East Africa.
Recovery: After surgery on her leg at age 29, she overcame her fear of not being able to dance like she used to by dancing wildly in the streets three times a week
Making a difference: Nurjahan danced in public for six months until she could run and belly dance again She now teaches belly dancing as a form of healing
“I grew up belly dancing from the time I could walk,” she said. ‘My mother’s family is from Tanzania and belly dancing is part of her culture.
“It’s not performative – it’s just with other women. In Western media, belly dancing is something sexual, but in my culture it’s about women coming together in a community and celebrating each other.’
Nurjahan now teaches belly dancing as a form of healing – she even instructs her students to dance naked in front of the mirror.
“I teach belly dance as a way of healing and a way to connect with your body,” she said. “It can help you heal from any trauma you’ve been through, whether it’s gun violence or body shame.
‘One of the assignments I give my students is to undress naked in front of the mirror and dance and only have good thoughts.
“I tell them to keep practicing that every day until they actually feel those good thoughts.”
Nurjahan also has a bimonthly clubhouse where gun violence survivors can share their own experiences and get support.