Being the first of anything is a tricky task, especially in the dance world. Despite this possible uphill battle, one ballerina is not letting that get in her way. Stephanie Kurlow is the 18-year-old Australian-Russian dancer who is hoping to become the first professional hijabi ballerina in the world.
Growing up in a North-Western suburb of Sydney, Kurlow began her dancing journey at the young age of two. However, only eight years later, she halted her studies when her family and her converted to Islam. The change in lifestyle made it difficult for Kurlow to find a dance school which coincided with her new religious journey; this led to her taking three years off from her training as a result.
With thanks to her Mum, Alsu, opening up her own performing arts academy, Kurlow was able to return to dancing in an environment which fully accepted her in 2012. The ballerina has since gone on to achieve a global campaign with Converse in 2019, becoming an ambassador for Remove The Hate From The Debate – an initiative for tackling online hate speech – and even joined The Wiggles at the end of last year for five weeks on their tour.
Kurlow's most recent project is being a part of Misty Copeland's SwansForRelief campaign, which is raising funds for struggling dance companies and ballerinas during the COVID-19 pandemic. In amongst all the organised chaos that is her life, Kurlow managed to find a time to have a chat with OOS about her life so far and where she sees it going in the future:
Out Of Step: How would you describe yourself to someone who's never met you?
Stephanie Kurlow: I would describe myself as ambitious, passionate and artistic.
OOS: How did you initially get into ballet?
SK: I started dancing even before I could walk and so my mum put me into a dance class when I was two years old.
OOS: Do you feel any pressure being a role model for younger dancers who also wear a hijab?
SK: I do feel a sense of pressure, but I'm here to inspire other girls who wear a hijab and so it feels so special to represent them.
OOS: Could you explain what the new campaign you're a part of SwansForRelief is about and how you got involved?
SK: I am so honoured to be a part of SwansForRelief with such a talented and beautiful group of ballerinas. Misty Copeland contacted me herself and asked if I wanted to be a part of an initiative that is raising money for ballet dancers and their companies/organisations to help support them due to COVID-19.
Illustration by Poppy Quy
OOS: What have been your top three ballet performance highlights?
SK: Performing at the Royal Danish Theatre during the Royal Danish Ballet Summer School in 2018 was such an amazing experience. Dancing Auroras 3rd act variation at Sydney Eisteddfod and dancing a variation from Swan Lake at the Alana Haines Awards in New Zealand last year.
OOS: What are your plans for the future?
SK: I hope to join a professional ballet company in the near future and continue to strive for further positive representation of hijabi women, especially in the arts and ballet.
OOS: I have also interviewed a designer/dancer called Saul Nash, who is known for his performance style runways at London Fashion Week, he wanted to ask you a question too!
Saul Nash: How do you navigate ballerinas having to have their hair in a particular way?
SK: I believe costuming is continuously changing in ballet and theatre. A lot of companies use wigs to create a more seamless look. I think that the audience is more focussed on the actual dancing and acting rather than a dancer's hair. It is such a small part of what a dancer is. I just happen not to show mine to the world.
By Niamh Rooney
Featured image courtesy of Stephanie Kurlow