Stephanie Kurlow, a 17-year-old Australian and aspiring professional dancer, says she "loves and thrives through the process of ballet." She demonstrates clean technique and an infectious joy while performing, but what sets her apart from most girls her age is her unyielding determination to follow her dreams and her reverent devotion to her Islamic faith. Her decision to adorn traditional Islamic headwear and modest dance clothing while training and performing has caught the world's attention, and she's now being celebrated by international brands, such as Converse and Gaynor Minden, and designer Tarese Klemens.
Kurlow began taking ballet at 2 years old, but ceased classes at age 9 after her family converted to Islam. Unable to find a dance studio that catered to Muslim girls, she didn't think it possible to continue. In response to seeing her daughter struggle, her mom opened a ballet academy where she could practice freely.
It wasn't until Kurlow saw Zahra Lari, the first ice skater to compete in a hijab, that she could even fathom becoming a professional ballerina as a Muslim woman. Now, she's determined to do so. Kurlow lists Lari, Misty Copeland and Chinese-Australian ballet dancer Li Cunxin as inspiring role models who followed their dreams, despite discrimination.
"I am forever drawn towards the art form of ballet," she says. "I feel that my whole self is connected to it."
Since recommitting to ballet at age 12, Kurlow, known to many as the "World's First Hijabi Ballerina," has caught the attention of Swedish fashion brand Björn Borg, which awarded her the Game Changer Scholarship. She has also received a grant to attend the Royal Danish Ballet's summer intensive and has been deeply involved with Remove Hate From The Debate, a campaign that assists youth in identifying and tackling online hate speech. We spoke with Kurlow about her journey, and how she encourages others to follow their ballet dreams.
Amber Griffin, Courtesy Kurlow
How does your faith help to illuminate your approach to ballet?
I find that my faith makes me really appreciate this beautiful art form and notice how all things are connected. Dance is another way that I can bring my spirituality into the world, and so performing can really bring a feeling of transcendence.
During your three-year break from dance, how did you stay active, both physically and artistically? And what inspired you to give ballet another shot?
During my break, I longed to put my efforts into something creative and artistic. You focus so much energy and perfection into dance that you rarely find the time for much outside of it. I became really interested in painting and creative writing—I even received first prize in an international writing competition when I was 11. But I found that nothing could compare to the pure magic that I feel working in the studio and then finally being onstage, where all your efforts come together. What inspired me to come back was when I saw Zahra Lari, the first hijabi ice skater in the world. I thought if she could do it, why can't I?
Taylor Ferne-Morris, Courtesy Kurlow
You are so open about sharing who you are and possess such a strong sense of leadership for someone so young—where do you get your strength from?
Oh, thank you! I think a lot of it comes from the process of developing as an artist and a person. I've faced a lot of hardship and criticism my entire life, so it's become second nature now to just continue persevering. I have a dream and so if I want to get there, I have to continue moving forward every day
What hardships have you met for wearing your hijab and opting for more modest dancewear? Do you see that changing?
I think people who see me for the first time in a ballet class or onstage in hijab are a bit shocked, because it's not something that they've really ever seen before. It would be so wonderful to see school and company directors being more open about the topic. I really do have a lot to offer as not only a hijabi woman but as a ballet dancer. I think that opening up a conversation about how to incorporate hijabi ballet dancers into the ballet world, and see where that leads us in the future, would be amazing. We have come so far in diversity and inclusion, but we still have a long way to go.
You went to the Royal Danish Ballet's summer intensive last year. What was it like? Were you able to train away from home again this past summer?
It was the most extraordinary experience of my life! I met so many beautiful, lifelong friends and learned so much from meeting new people and being in a different country. The teachers and the program were so amazing, and I still keep all the lessons that I learned from them with me whenever I dance. It's a very special feeling to be in a room with so many hard-working and inspiring dancers every day, all supporting one another. This year I decided to stay home for the summer (which is winter here in Australia). I performed at the Sydney Eisteddfod Ballet Scholarship and was selected as a quarter finalist, which I am so grateful for!
Any advice you would like to give to young dancers struggling to accept their individuality in the ballet world?
You are forever evolving and developing as both an artist and a person. Allow yourself to feel freedom when you express your individuality. Every professional dancer that I know has always told me to just be myself when I dance. Don't try and be the person next to you or that girl on Instagram. All great ballet dancers are known for their individuality and expression foremost, so be brave when you dance, and allow yourself to be who you are.