Stephanie Kurlow—the First Hijabi Ballerina

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A common misconception is that pursuing certain arts and sports and wearing the hijab is contradictory. How can a hijabi exercise these forms of free expression? In recent years there has been an encouraging precedent of women wearing the hijab, who have taken on and excelled in these fields, challenging these limited perspectives. Australia’s most recent superstar, Stephanie Kurlow, is one of them.

Born to an Australian father and Russian mother, Stephanie took up dancing at the age of two. Her family converted to Islam in 2010, and she stopped dancing after struggling to find a school that catered to Muslim women. After all but giving up on her ambitions, she decided to take up the arts once again, inspired by groundbreaking athletes such as African-American ballerina Misty Copeland, and the first hijabi Emirati weightlifter, Amna Al Haddad.

Stephanie has used social media to her advantage, having set up a crowdfunding page to help finance private tuition, the success of which attracted a scholarship from sports brand Björn Borg. Even though social media has allowed her to cast her story to a wider audience, making her an inspiration for Muslim women, minority women, and women as a whole, it has also bought some anti-Muslim and Islamophobic sentiment. Stephanie has chosen to focus on overcoming the negatives, with her steely resolve being sharpened as she embarks on the next phase of her ballet career.

Stephanie’s drive comes from her quest to break the ballerina stereotype, and she wants to show people “that even though I wear a hijab, it doesn’t stop me from doing anything. I can be who I want to be and fulfil a career and nobody can tell me otherwise.”

She has also debunked myths related to ballet, which have been brought up in an attempt to exclude her from the artistic fold. “Some people are telling me that I don’t belong in the ballet world, that I can not express art while I am covered,” the teen says, arguing that ballerinas traditionally wore long skirts and dresses in the 17th and 18th centuries. “Ballet was so modest in those times. The talent and technique can’t be measured by the length of the skirt or hijab.” She believes that her hijab is her expression of love to her creator and she believes it covers her body but not he mind, heart and talent.

Stephanie is also facilitating a push to reimagine the evolving nature of art forms, and how  diverse backgrounds of artists actually work to complement the growth and maturity of the artistic field.  “Art forms are always evolving and I think introducing ballerinas who are diverse are just creating a more beautiful world.”

Stephanie’s next goal is to win a place at a pre-professional ballet school before touring the world with a dance company.  Once she has turned professional, she would like to open her own ballet company and performing arts school that caters towards people of different religions, races or backgrounds. This is based on her belief that being different is something we should be proud of and embrace.

“I want to inspire people to be yourself and be proud of your identity. Reach for the stars, but never compromise your values, religion or beliefs.”

In light of the Christchurch terrorist attacks and continual political polarization, stories like Stephanie’s are vivid reminders that religions, cultures, races, ethnicities, and other such denominations can be catalysts for empowerment and excellence, and as TCKs, we should leverage these to create more inclusive and progressive societies for ourselves and the world around us.   

We want to hear from you. How has your TCK background helped you to overcome any adversity you have experienced? Reply in the comment section below!

Learn more:

SBS produced a short film about Stephanie Kurlow and her dreams of being the world’s first hijab wearing ballerina.

Stephanie speaks about the challenges, what her hijab means to her, and how she is using it to reshape femininity in the ballet world.

Stephanie was featured in a Lenovo campaign with designer Tarese Klemens for International Women's Day in 2018.

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