Soldier Bridges Cultural Gap Through Dance


FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- It has been said by people the world over that dance is a universal language in which anyone from anywhere can become fluent, if they are willing to watch and learn. A moment of their time and a little willingness to disregard one's inhibitions are all it takes to gain an understanding of one another without exchanging a single syllable. Sometimes, in the process, that connection can yield something far bigger -- a lifetime passion.

An individual can find his or her passion and share it for the benefit of all through the universal languages of music and dance. That is exactly what Sgt. Mustafa Al-Ibraheem of D Company, 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, believes. In fact, it has taken him much farther. Not only has he learned a dance style, he has become a student of a culture and a teacher of its contributions to the worlds of dance and music.

Growing up in Baghdad, Iraq, Al-Ibraheem describes his childhood as a happy one, with many hours spent playing sports with his friends and studying hard for his classes. His parents were well-educated and open-minded, and he credits them with giving him a love for learning and new ideas.

"I grew up like an ordinary kid -- you know, played a lot of soccer. (I) studied a lot, (since) I had very educated parents," said Al-Ibraheem. "They were also very open-minded, so I was very fortunate."

He also credits his Family, his parents in particular, with imbuing him with confidence, which he says is hereditary. It is this confidence that would later have him assuming leadership roles at a very early age.

"In kindergarten, I sang a lot on stage and I did a lot of shows," said Al-Ibraheem, "and I became president of my class when I was 6 years old, taking care of my classmates when the teacher was gone, keeping them quiet and everything."

Al-Ibraheem's love for learning, along with his confidence, gave him a curiosity early on about the world and a desire to see and experience new things. He told his parents while still very young that he wanted to travel and see what else the world had to offer him.

"My intention to leave Iraq came very early," Al-Ibraheem said. "I told my mother that I want to leave, I want to travel, to get out of Iraq."

His opportunity to travel came when U.S. forces landed in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

He quickly found employment as an interpreter with the Marines, with whom he saw many parts of his own country for the first time and eventually found himself at Contingency Operating Base Adder, formerly known as Tallil Air Base at Al-Nasiriyah, southeast of his hometown of Baghdad and where he discovered salsa music for the first time.

"It hit me when I was at COB Adder," said Al-Ibraheem. "There was a Puerto Rican guy named Jose, and he was teaching (salsa) there."

Jose noticed Al-Ibraheem's serious intention to learn as well as how quickly he caught on to the dance steps. He pulled Al-Ibraheem aside and told him that his contract was running out and asked him if he would consider taking over the class.

"I began by being the DJ and teaching people the basic steps," Al-Ibraheem said. "Then I started watching YouTube, educating myself about the moves, and then started teaching advanced classes."

The time he spent with the Marines as well as other branches of the U.S. armed forces as an interpreter did more than just give him access to parts of his country he may never have seen; it gave him a view of a lifestyle and a set of ideals that inspired him do more. It inspired him to join the Army. He remembers the men who inspired him in particular and to this day stays in close touch with one of them.

"One of my colonels, he was an amazing leader and he treated me like one of his guys and he took care of me," said Al-Ibraheem. "It's basically because of the people I served with and because I love America, because it's good to give back to the country that changed my life."

The colonel in particular that he refers to is Lt. Col. Christopher DeGaray, but it was Sgt. 1st Class Charles Hagwood, now retired, whom he credits with teaching him about the Army way of life, as well as how to be an American citizen. He remains close to Hagwood, through email and telephone calls as well visiting his Family on holidays.

"Till this day we talk and I visit his Family. He has a wonderful Family," Al-Ibraheem said. "He was the one who taught me about life in the United States, about taxes, about the Army and how to deal with the upper and lower levels (of leadership), to do the right thing at all times."

Al-Ibraheem eventually came to Fort Drum, and not long after his arrival, he deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Shortly after he got back, he noticed that there was no real outlet for the Latin community in the local area. He decided to do something about it and went to the USO to see if he could start a salsa class as a way to not only give the Fort Drum Latin population an outlet, but to spread the word about salsa music and dancing to everyone else. He began teaching salsa at the USO in August.

"When he came to Fort Drum, he found that there was nothing in town and nothing on Fort Drum as far as any salsa dancing," said Karen Clark, director of USO Fort Drum. "I knew that he had been involved in it overseas, so he came to us to see if we would support him in teaching a class."

The USO helped Al-Ibraheem by providing a facility and by getting the word out, using marketing tools like social media, community leader forums and flyers posted around Fort Drum. Word definitely got out, and people came to his classes. The size of the classes varies with the operational tempo of the Soldiers, but it was the fact that the classes have such a varied make-up as far as backgrounds and race that Clark noticed.

"We've had big classes and we've had small classes, depending on the mission tempo," Clark said, "but what was neat was that there was a real sense of community. They didn't have to come from a Latin background to have a good time."

Clark describes Al-Ibraheem's classes as incredibly joyful and clearly senses the feeling of camaraderie among the participants. She also describes Al-Ibraheem's teaching style as one that is inclusive and easy to follow.

"His teaching style is not one where you're going to get a grade. People are just coming to have fun, just to have a good time," Clark said.

The intangibles that are communicated in the dancing -- such as community, camaraderie and joy, regardless of anyone's background -- have demonstrated to Al-Ibraheem and to the people in his classes that dance really is a universal language. It is a language spoken with the things that we all as human beings possess: bodies, emotions and a need to be social. He has seen it for himself having had opportunities to dance with people from so many different places and backgrounds.

"Dancing I think, is the international language," Al-Ibraheem said. "You can express yourself and have a great time. I once danced with a girl from Portugal. I don't speak Portuguese, but we danced just fine."

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