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World’s First ‘Hijabi Ballerina’ Is Forging a Path for Dancers from Diverse Backgrounds

Meet Stephanie Kurlow, a 15-year-old Australian dancer who is changing the face of ballet in Australia. Kurlow grew up in the south-west of Sydney, and has been dancing since the tender age of 2. She also happens to wear a hijab.

In 2010, Kurlow stopped performing ballet when her family converted to Islam. At the time, finding a school which accommodated both her religious beliefs and dance needs seemed impossible, and Kurlow thought her professional ballet dreams were over.

“I didn’t have any role models that looked like me. I didn’t have anyone who had a layout of, ‘This is what I’ve done, this is how I’ve become this,’” Kurlow told the SBS.

Read more: Lawmaker’s ‘Controversial Painting’ Features a Statue of Liberty in a Hijab

However, inspired by the determination and success of public figures like principal ballerina Misty Copeland, Emirati weightlifter Amna Al Haddad, and American news anchor Noor Tagouri, Kurlow decided to give her dream one more shot.

She launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for a full-time ballet-school education, and her story quickly spread worldwide, catching the attention of Swedish sport fashion company Bjorn Borg in early 2016. The company was so moved by Kurlow’s story that they awarded her their first ever Game Changer scholarship, equal to around $8400 AUD and sufficient to cover a year of ballet tuition.

“She’s a true game changer,” said Bjorn Borg marketing director, Jonas Lindberg Nyvang. “We were genuinely inspired to learn about her story. The courage it takes for a 14-year-old to fight for her right to dance ballet against all odds is exceptional.”

Not everyone has been encouraging of Kurlow’s dream.

“She's very young, but she's already had to cope with considerable pressure from the extreme right in the Muslim community and the extreme right in the Australian community," Silma Ihram, a family friend and President of the Australian Muslim Women's Association told the SBS. Although some Muslims discourage dancing, Ihram sees no problem with Kurlow pursuing her passion, saying, “I think having active practicing Muslim women who are proud to be Australian and who want to do something which is new and innovative is a fantastic role model.”

“People are always going to have something negative to say, you’re better off focusing on just being you,” says Kurlow. “I really look forward to a time where wearing a hijab isn’t front page news, because having different beliefs or clothes shouldn’t be a deciding factor as to whether you pursue your dreams or not.”

“She’s definitely forging new ground and I think it’s going to be something that’ll really challenge people like myself and ballet companies but I think that’s a good thing,” commented David McAllister, Australian Ballet Artistic Director.

Read more: This Syrian Refugee Defied ISIS Death Threats to Dance Ballet

Muslim author and lawyer, Randa Abdel Fattah, has nothing but praise for Kurlow. “On so many levels, she’s an inspiration. And I think it's beyond just a Muslim story here. It’s about somebody just pursuing their dream against all odds.”

Although Kurlow admits it was difficult getting back into dancing after her three-year break, she says that “any dream can be achieved through perseverance and hard work. If you love something you can achieve anything.”

The dancer is currently training for a place at a pre-professional ballet school which she hopes will enable her to tour the world with a dance company. Her long term goal is to open her own “ballet company and performing arts school that caters towards people of different religions, races or backgrounds.”

“We need to realise that being different is something you should be proud of and embrace,” Kurlow says. “Art forms are always evolving and I think introducing ballerinas who are diverse is just creating a more beautiful world.”