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.

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Chisako Oga photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton

Chisako Oga Is Soaring to New Heights at Boston Ballet

Chisako Oga is a dancer on the move—in more ways than one. From childhood training in Texas, California and Japan to a San Francisco Ballet apprenticeship to her first professional post with Cincinnati Ballet, where she quickly rose to principal dancer, she has rarely stood still for long.

But now the 24-year-old ballerina is right where she wants to be, as one of the most promising soloists at Boston Ballet. In 2019, Oga left her principal contract to join the company as a second soloist, rising to soloist the following year. "I knew I would have to take a step down to join a company of a different caliber, and Boston Ballet is one of the best companies in the country," she says. "The repertoire—Kylián, Forysthe, all the full-length ballets—is so appealing to me."

And the company has offered her major opportunities from the start. She danced the title role in Giselle in her very first performances with Boston Ballet, transforming a playful innocent into a woman haunted by betrayal with dramatic conviction and technical aplomb. But she also is making her mark in contemporary work. The last ballet she performed onstage before the pandemic hit was William Forsythe's demanding In the middle, somewhat elevated, which she says was a dream to perform. "The style really clicked, felt really comfortable. Bill drew something new out of me every rehearsal. As hard as it was, it was so much fun."

"Chisako is a very natural mover, pliable and strong," says artistic director Mikko Nissinen. "Dancing seems to come very easy for her. Not many have that quality. She's like a diamond—I'm curious to see how much we can polish that talent."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, does a pench\u00e9 on pointe towards the camera with her arms held out to the side and her long hair flying. Smiling confidently, she wears a blue leotard and a black and white ombr\u00e9 tutu.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

A Life-Changing Opportunity

Oga began dancing at the age of 3. Born in Dallas, she and her family moved around to follow her father's job in IT. Before settling in Carlsbad, California, they landed in Japan for several years, where Oga began to take ballet very seriously. "I like the simplicity of ballet, the structure and the clear vocabulary," she says. "Dances that portray a story or have a message really drew me in. One of my favorite parts of a story ballet is diving into the role and becoming the character, putting it in my perspective."

In California, Oga studied with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky and Maxim Tchernychev. Her teachers encouraged her to enter competitions, which she says broadened her outlook and fed her love of performing in front of an audience. Though highly motivated, she says she came to realize that winning medals wasn't everything. "Honestly, I feel like the times I got close and didn't place gave me perspective, made me realize being a dancer doesn't define you and helped me become the person and the dancer I am today."

At 15, Oga was a semifinalist at the Prix de Lausanne, resulting in a "life-changing" scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School. There she trained with two of her most influential teachers, Tina LeBlanc and Patrick Armand. "She came in straightaway with strong basics," Armand recalls, "and working with her for two years, I realized how clever she is. She's super-smart, thoughtful, driven, always working."

She became a company apprentice in 2016. Then came the disappointing news—she was let go a few months later. Pushing 5' 2", she was simply too short for the company's needs, she was told. "It was really, really hard," says Oga. "I felt like I was on a good track, so to be let go was very shocking, especially since my height was not something I could improve or change."

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

Moving On and Up

Ironically, Oga's height proved an advantage in auditioning for Cincinnati Ballet, which was looking for a talented partner for some of their shorter men. She joined the company in 2016, was quickly promoted to soloist, and became a principal dancer for the 2017–18 season, garnering major roles like Swanilda and Juliet during her three years with the company. "There were times I felt insignificant and insecure, like I don't deserve this," Oga says about these early opportunities. "But I was mostly thrilled to be put in those shoes."

She was also thriving in contemporary work, like choreographer-in-residence Jennifer Archibald's MYOHO. Archibald cites her warmth, playfulness and sensitivity, adding, "There's also a powerful presence about her, and I was amazed at how fast she was at picking up choreography, able to find the transitions quickly. She's definitely a special talent. Boston Ballet will give her more exposure on a national level."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, poses in attitude derriere crois\u00e9 on her right leg, with her right arm out to the side and her left hand grazing her left shoulder. She smiles happily towards the camera, her black hair blowing in the breeze, and wears a blue leotard, black-and-white ombre tutu, and skin-colored pointe shoes.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

That was Oga's plan. She knew going in that Cincinnati was more stepping-stone than final destination. She had her sights on a bigger company with a broader repertoire, and Boston Ballet seemed ideal.

As she continues to spread her wings at the company, Oga has developed a seemingly effortless artistic partnership with one of Boston Ballet's most dynamic male principals, Derek Dunn, who Oga calls "a kind-hearted, open person, so supportive when I've been hard on myself. He's taught me to believe in myself and trust that I'm capable of doing whatever the choreography needs." The two have developed an easy bond in the studio she likens to "a good conversation, back and forth."

Dunn agrees. "I knew the first time we danced together we had a special connection," he says. "She really takes on the artistic side of a role, which makes the connection really strong when we're dancing onstage. It's like being in a different world."

He adds, "She came into the company and a lot was thrown at her, which could have been daunting. She handled it with such grace and confidence."

Derek Dunn, shirtless and in blue tights, lunges slightly on his right leg and holds Chisako Oga's hand as she balances on her left leg on pointe with her right leg flicking behind her. She wears a yellow halter-top leotard and they dance onstage in front of a bright orange backdrop.

Oga with Derek Dunn in Helen Pickett's Petal

Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Perspective in a Pandemic

The pair were heading into Boston Ballet's busy spring season when the pandemic hit. "It was really a bummer," Oga says. "I was really looking forward to Swan Lake, Bella Figura, some new world premieres. When we found out the whole season was canceled, it was hard news to take in."

But she quickly determined to make the most of her time out of the studio and physically rest her body. "All the performances take a toll. Of course, I did stretches and exercised, but we never give ourselves enough time to rest as dancers."

She also resumed college courses toward a second career. Oga is one of many Boston Ballet dancers taking advantage of a special partnership with Northeastern University to help them earn bachelor's degrees. Focusing on finance and accounting, Oga upped her classes in economics, algebra, business and marketing. She also joined Boston Ballet's Color Our Future Mentoring Program to raise awareness and support diversity, equity and inclusion. "I am trying to have my voice inspire the next generation," she says.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

One pandemic silver lining has been spending more time with her husband, Grand Rapids Ballet dancer James Cunningham. The two met at Cincinnati Ballet, dancing together in Adam Hougland's Cut to the Chase just after Oga's arrival, and got married shortly before her move to Boston. Cunningham took a position in Grand Rapids, so they've been navigating a long-distance marriage ever since. They spend a lot of time texting and on FaceTime, connecting in person during layoffs. "It's really hard," Oga admits, but adds, "We are both very passionate about the art form, so it's easy to support each other's goals."

Oga's best advice for young dancers? "Don't take any moment for granted," she says without hesitation. "It doesn't matter what rank you are, just do everything to the fullest—people will see the hard work you put in. Don't settle for anything less. Knowing [yourself] is also very important, not holding yourself to another's standards. No two paths are going to be the same."

And for the foreseeable future, Oga's path is to live life to the fullest, inside and outside ballet. "The pandemic put things in perspective. Dancing is my passion. I want to do it as long as I can, but it's only one portion of my life. I truly believe a healthy balance between social and work life is good for your mental health and helps me be a better dancer."

Kaatsbaan Cultural Park artistic director Stella Abrera and executive director Sonja Kostich. Photo by Quinn Wharton, Courtesy Kaatsbaan Cultural Park

The Inaugural Kaatsbaan Spring Festival Brings Together Leading Figures in Dance

The rollout of vaccinations is helping the U.S. turn a corner during this coronavirus pandemic, and artists and audience members alike are looking forward to enjoying live performances once again. It couldn't be more perfect timing, then, for the inaugural Kaatsbaan Spring Festival, which will feature 16 presentations on two outdoor stages in New York's Hudson Valley. Taking place May 20–23 and May 27–30, the festival brings together luminaries from multiple disciplines, including dance, music, poetry, sculpture and the culinary arts.

"During a challenging year such as this, we really wanted to provide artists from various genres opportunities for support and work," says Sonja Kostich, Kaatsbaan Cultural Park's executive director.

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Ballet West principal Katlyn Addison in a still from In The Balance. Courtesy Ballet West

Ballet West’s New Web Series Documents an Uncertain November

If the story of a ballet company presenting performances amidst a global pandemic, a divisive presidential election, and uprisings for justice sounds like it was made for TV, Ballet West has a series for you. In The Balance: Ballet for a Lost Year is a nine-episode documentary about BW's November 2020 performances, which took place at Salt Lake City's Capitol Theatre. The series premieres Friday, May 7, on Ballet West's social media channels, with a new episode released every Friday. (Viewers can also unlock all nine episodes on Ballet West's website starting May 7.)

For a month filmmakers Diana Whitten and Tyler Measom of Skyscape Studios had unlimited access to company class (divided into pods to abide by COVID-19 restrictions), rehearsals for new ballets by Jennifer Archibald and Nicolo Fonte, and interviews with artists and administrators. Some of the series' most fascinating insights come from people's different ways of navigating uncertainty, and how this connects to the arts.

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