Young Muslim ballet dancer aims to break new ground

A Sydney teenager is gaining international support in her bid to become the world's first hijab-wearing ballerina, but she's also facing a number of challenges.

Reaching the top level of ballet takes strength, poise and determination, and for 14-year-old Stephanie Kurlow, there's another challenge - displaying both her faith and her love of ballet.

Dancing since she was two-years-old, she stopped when her family converted to Islam, believing she would not be accepted by the ballet world, while wearing her hijab.

"I didn't have any role models that looked like me," she told SBS. "I didn't know anyone who had a layout of 'this is what I've done and how I've become this'."

Inspired by the success of , the first African-American woman to be named Principle Dancer by the American Ballet, Ms Kurlow launched a to help her achieve her dream of becoming a professional dancer.

Ballet tackles diversity challenge

The Australian Ballet says it welcomes diversity and has a range of dancers from very diverse backgrounds 

"I guess the one thing that is the great leveller in ballet is talent," said Australian Ballet Artistic Director David McAllister.

"If you have the talent and you work hard and you achieve what you need to be, to assume those rigorous positions and movements of ballet, then that's the only thing that really separates dancers."

"She's definitely forging new ground" - David McAllister, Artistic Director, The Australian Ballet
However, he says costuming may pose a problem, adding that a dancer who wished to wear the hijab may be excluded from some dances.

"When you have a corps de ballet of 24 swans, they all sort of have to look the same, costume-wise."

'Forging new ground'

He said the issue of whether the ballet could change to accommodate religious sensitivities is something which is yet to be tested.

"[Ms Kurlow is] definitely forging new ground and I think it's going to be something that will really challenge people like myself and ballet companies. But I think that's a good thing."

Since launching her campaign, Ms Kurlow has garnered support, but also some criticism from within and outside of the Muslim community.

"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," said Silma Ihram, a family friend and President of the Australian Muslim Women's Association.

Subverting expectations

Ms Ihram says some Muslims believe dancing is forbidden.

"There will be some who will say it is discouraged, and they will cite some verses of Koran.  And I'm not a scholar, but I think, if she's covering herself and she's showing beauty in an art form, there's no problem from my point of view."

"If you love something that much...the world can change for you."
Muslim author and lawyer Randa Abdel Fattah says Ms Kurlow's determination is an inspiration.

“The ballet industry already has quite stringent rules about how ballerinas should look. She’s really already subverting a lot of those expectations. I think it’s incredible that she’s so young and she’s so determined to do it," she said.

"The ballet industry for any young woman is very challenging, and you constantly face expectations about body shape and rituals that you need to maintain. And [those challenges] do tend to bar a lot of girls from participating," she said.

“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.”

Ms Kurlow says her ultimate goal is to open her own ballet school, catering to people from diverse backgrounds.

"If you love something that much, the world can accommodate for you. You be the person you want to be - and the world can change for you."

4 min read
Published 6 February 2016 at 1:43pm
By Brianna Roberts
Source: SBS