Stephanie Kurlow

Taylor Ferne-Morris, Courtesy Kurlow

Get to Know Stephanie Kurlow, Who's Training to Become the First Professional Hijabi Ballerina

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.

Latest Posts


Getty Images

How Can I Stay Motivated While Training at Home?

Ethan Ahuero was having a good year: he was in his first season dancing with Kansas City Ballet II and had been presented with the opportunity to choreograph on the second company. "The day before we shut down I had a rehearsal, and I was so happy," Ahuero says. "The piece was coming together and this was the first time I felt really proud of my creative process."

Suddenly, the coronavirus pandemic brought everything to a halt. With the company's season cut short and the studios closed, Ahuero found himself attempting to continue dancing from home, with his choreography project put on hold. Like many other dancers around the world, Ahuero is dealing with disappointment while struggling to stay motivated.

Keeping up with daily ballet classes may feel difficult right now; inspiration can seem hard to come by when you're following along on Zoom and short on space at home. Below are a few simple tips for finding new ways to stay motivated.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
THE GINGERB3ARDMEN, Courtesy Complexions Contemporary Ballet

How Jillian Davis Created Her Own Path to Complexions and Learned to Believe in Herself

It's impossible to miss Complexions Contemporary Ballet's Jillian Davis onstage. Tall and glamorous, her commanding stage presence, luxurious movement quality and intuitive musicality have made her one of the company's standout stars. But her road to Complexions was anything but linear. The 6'2" dancer worked tirelessly over several years to find her place in the dance world, ultimately reinventing herself and creating her own path to success. At a time when many early career dancers may be facing uncertainty, her story shows the power of resiliency.

Davis grew up on a dairy farm in Kutzstown, Pennsylvania, where she studied dance at a local studio and in the Philadelphia area, and took private lessons at home. She also started growing, shooting up seven inches over one summer. At 13, she and her family decided to take her daily training up a notch, commuting 100 miles each way to the Princeton Dance & Theater Studio, where she studied under Risa Kaplowitz and Susan Jaffe. By then she was already 5'7", and she soon realized—especially as she started learning how to partner—that her height might be an issue if she wanted to dance ballet professionally.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Tulsa Ballet in Ma Cong's Tchaikovsky: The Man Behind the Music. Kate Luber Photography, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

Updated: Mark Your Calendars for These Online Ballet Performances

Updated on 5/21/2020

Since COVID-19 has forced ballet companies around the world to cancel performances—and even the remainder of their seasons—many are keeping their audiences engaged by streaming or posting pre-recorded performances onto their websites or social media channels. To help keep you inspired during these challenging times, we've put together a list of upcoming streaming events and digital performances.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks