Inspired to Dance

Actor Reece Ritchie shares how his new film Desert Dancer has changed his life. 

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- Posted on Apr 9, 2015

Reece Ritchie and Freida Pinto in Desert Dancer

The timing of director Richard Raymond's new film Desert Dancer couldn't be more relevant. 

Dancer follows the true story of Iranian dancer Afshin Ghaffarian, who began his own underground dance company as a student at the University of Tehran before ultimately seeking asylum in France in 2009. It’s a powerful commentary on the oppression of the Iranian people that continues today. 

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Just last September, six Iranians were arrested for dancing in a YouTube music video set to artist Pharrell William's hit "Happy." Their punishment, which was later suspended, consisted of one year in prison and 91 lashes. 

For those living in the West, it's hard to imagine a world in which mimicking Michael Jackson's moonwalk or shaking it to a Taylor Swift song carried with it the threat of bodily harm, imprisonment or even death. For Ghaffarian, that threat was all too real.

British actor Reece Ritchie, who won the titular role, tells Guideposts.org. what an honor it was to play Ghaffarian on film. "I felt like I wanted to walk in on my knees," Ritchie says of the first time he met the desert dancer in Paris. 

Reece Ritchie in Desert Dancer

Ritchie, who cut his teeth on epics like Prince of PersiaHercules and NBC’s miniseriesA.D. The Bible Continues, admitted that taking on the role of the revolutionary was the most challenging thing he's ever done. 

Along with the rest of the cast -- which includes Slumdog Millionare actress Freida Pinto as Elaheh, a tortured dancer and Ghaffarian's love interest – Ritchie embarked on a three-year journey in order to bring the film to fruition. With no money, no script and no professional background in dance, Ritchie worked tirelessly, training six days a week for four months in order to get his body and his technique in the proper place to portray a dancer on the screen. 

The cast had the added benefit of working with renowned choreographer Akram Khan, who choreographed the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, and Ritchie says, they all pushed themselves past the breaking point. 

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"I thought I was quite a determined person," Ritchie says, "but when you’re waking up and you can’t move and your body’s aching and there's blisters and you have to dance, I’ll be honest, there were times I just did not want to go in. That’s what [Ghaffarian] went through. It’s a cliché, but you have to suffer for your art and [he] did. So, I had to, in order to be worthy of playing him, I think."

Reece Ritchie and Freida Pinto in Desert Dancer

His commitment shines through on screen. As Ghaffarian, Ritchie brings a vulnerability and honesty to the man who ultimately defied his government and rebelled against a regime that has banned dancing and other forms of expression.

Though many in the western world can't relate to or even imagine the kind of risks Ghaffarian was forced to take in order to follow his passion, there's an accessibility in Ritchie's performance. When Ritchie raises his fist in protest in the final dance sequence of the film, we can't help but root for Ghaffarian. 

"I wanted my peers to know what I had learned on this film," the actor explains. "I felt guilty when I first watched [Ghaffarian’s] story, before I was involved in the movie, that I didn’t know anything. I felt like I should’ve. He was very similar to me; same age, we looked similar, he had just been born somewhere else.”

“Where I grew up, I could be an actor, I could be a dancer, I could do anything I wanted to and no one was going to stop me. He couldn’t. I felt a sense of guilt about that. I had to help tell this story for that reason." 

He hopes that others will learn something from Ghaffarian's story too. 

"We put ourselves under pressure, very much so nowadays in this kind of social media bubble we live in. People are so conscious and care so much [about what others think of you] and I think if you can get to a point, when you watch this movie, where you can think 'Oh, what am I actually passionate about?' Strip away all of the trimmings and find out 'Who am I? What defines me? What would I fight for?' That would be something.”

“I hope this will inspire people to think about that and not just get caught up in trying to be more rich or socially accepted. Because that’s what I love about [him]. He just had such a clear idea of who he was and he was just unflinching in it."

Desert Dancer opens in limited theaters today, everywhere April 17th. 

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