To celebrate National Youth Week, SBS launched a competition inviting 14- to 20-year-olds to submit a video pitch about their identity, the prize, a chance to have their short film on air. The response was overwhelming with many inspiring entries from across the nation. Five finalists were invited to attend a residential storytelling workshop in Melbourne, and with the help of SBS and the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) produced a short film about their story.

Winner, fourteen year old Stephanie Kurlow dreams of being the world’s first hijab wearing ballerina.

“People are always going to have something negative to say, you’re better off focusing on just being you.”

When you first meet Stephanie Kurlow it’s immediately clear why this young woman has captured so much interest from all around the world.

Stephanie’s hope to be the first ever Hijab-wearing Muslim ballerina in the world has caught the attention of publications like CNN, The New York Times, The UK Daily Mail and Teen Vogue. Her social media profile is gaining more likes, comments and regrams by the day.

It may sound like a cliché but the best thing about Stephanie is that she’s just a normal, down to earth 14-year-old from Sydney’s south-west.

It’s hard to believe that Stephanie has only been in the spotlight since earlier this year as she is already so confident and grounded in the presence of cameras and film crews; always willing to add her creative ideas and answer questions with warmth and self-awareness.

She possesses a determination and focus that sits surprisingly comfortably on her slim ballerina shoulders.

Stephanie describes herself simply as an “Aussie Muslim ballerina.”

For Stephanie, her commitment to dancing since she was two years old, and her family’s conversion to Islam in 2010, are both critical parts of her identity. Quite a unique combination.

Stephanie is driven to ‘break the ballerina stereotype’ and 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.’”

Coming into the media spotlight, particularly through social media, has been both incredibly rewarding and confronting for Stephanie.

“If I hadn’t had social media this whole experience would be extremely different, it’s given me the chance to get so much support, but without it I wouldn’t have faced so much negativity either.”

“There’s obviously been a downside with people who are anti-Muslim saying ‘You don’t fit in to ballet’ but there have been many more people sharing their stories and supporting me.”

Comments like ‘You are such an inspiration for all Muslim girls’ and ‘Your dancing is so captivating’ from strangers on Facebook regularly bolster Stephanie to pursue her dreams despite the prejudice and Islamophobia she also has to face.

“I see some people commenting that we are oppressed or that we’re terrorists.”

“I see some people commenting that we are oppressed or that we’re terrorists.”

Stephanie has chosen to focus on overcoming this negativity in the short film she recently made with SBS. Her film shows her walking into an empty space with the voices of her online critics circling her. As she begins to dance, the voices fade away and her world is transformed. Dancing drowns out the hate and leaves her peaceful and powerful.

For Stephanie, ballet offers a space to tell stories and express herself. This is why she’s determined to increase the visibility of diverse role models in dance.

“I can express myself through ballet because it’s an art form and you’re telling a story through movement. You don’t need costumes; you can wear whatever you want to express yourself.”

As a self-identified storyteller, the transition from story through dance to story through film was a seamless one for Stephanie.

“Seeing the filmmaking process, playing around with the camera, lighting and sound ... I was learning so many different things and it was really cool to see the other side of film.”

Stephanie hopes by sharing her personal story she will inspire others to pursue their dreams but also challenge viewers to question the assumptions they might make about, young women in general and Muslims and ballerinas in particular.

“When people watch my film I want them to think that we shouldn’t be afraid of pursuing our dreams even if we know it’s going to be difficult.”

Stephanie Kurlow is a young woman to watch, from where we stand her future looks incredibly bright.

Words by: Brigid Canny
Mentor Director: Genevieve Bailey
Mentor Cinematographer: Sky Davies
Mentor Producer: Brigid Canny
Photography: Geneviève Bailey