A life on purpose
For most of us, we dance because it feels good. Because there are some thoughts, some feelings and some relationships we only experience while dancing and when dancing with others.
We’re drawn to diverse styles and forms; to Hip Hop or Contemporary, Lyrical, Classical, Highland, Folk, Jazz, Breakdance or Musical Theatre. We dance because we love the people that have become part of our tribe, our extended artistic family. We dance because we relish the thrill of being on stage; the journey of learning a new routine and delving into it over time, pulling it apart technically, narratively, musically and discovering ways to make it better, to polish it till it shines bright, metaphorically blinding an audience with its brilliance. We might revel in the pressure and excitement of building toward a performance and the intoxicating mix of sheer terror and joy of being on stage, losing yourself in a moment, be that two minutes or two hours spent falling into another character or state of being.
After only a few minutes chatting with Stephanie Kurlow, the young dancer known as the First Hijabi Ballerina, it was obvious that dance was all of these things for her. And yet, it was equally clear that it was also so much more; an experience, a calling, a path and a bridge that most dancers would never know. And while on another dancer’s shoulders such might be a weight, a burden or lead to a deep sense of inner conflict, for Stephanie these were instead embraced with a lightness of spirit and touch and relished joyously.
I got the strong sense I was talking with a less emphatic, yet no less passionate and persuasive, Greta Thunberg of dance. I wouldn’t tell Stephanie that during the interview as I was sure it would sound overly tacky coming out in the moment, but I reveal it now – though it will likely still sound tacky – because it’s sincerely what went through my mind. That’s the feeling her presence gave me. I recall experiencing something similar many years earlier while I was living in Chicago in 2008 and found myself in close proximity to then President-Elect Barack Obama on the evening in which he won his first election. I’ve since come to recognise that feeling as being in the presence of the deeply authentic and committed. It’s the feeling of being star-struck without the need for celebrity to be attached or present.
Stephanie has only recently turned 19 and yet she comes across as possessing a wisdom beyond her years; a willingness to embrace her uniqueness and not fall into the shadow of the social media status quo, to both love and pay homage to the classical tradition, yet also call out its short-comings and want to throw around ideas, embrace conversation and see where it all leads. In short, the overwhelming sense I got from her was how courageous she is.
And yet it’s not a courage born of hubris. Early on when I questioned her, indeed pushed her on some of her ideas, she freely embraced that she doesn’t have all the answers, that she doesn’t yet know how to get where she wants to go and remake classical ballet in the mould she envisions. Yet she’s all too happy, indeed is very eager, to enjoy the sometimes confrontational, personal and difficult questions that need to be asked to transform the classical ballet traditions in order that it becomes more inclusive of diversity to better reflect contemporary Australian society and thus win a broader, more popular appeal.
Stephanie wasn’t always known as the “First Hijabi Ballerina” of course. While she started dance at the age of two, sent to classes as a consequence of constantly bouncing around the house to music, her family didn’t convert to Islam until she was eight, and she was eleven when she started wearing the Hijab, the traditional head scarf and modest coverings worn by orthodox women of the Muslim faith.
Yet here things got a little thorny. Stephanie’s determination to respect her faith wasn’t embraced by a number of local dance studios she tried to attend. Instead they insisted she remove her head scarf, or the more modest dress – long sleeves and skirt – she wanted to wear for classes, citing that it wasn’t class uniform. Despondent she gave up ballet for a number of years believing that it simply wasn’t possible for a girl expressing the Muslim faith as she did to do ballet. Her belief was reinforced when she couldn’t find any role models in the professional dance space wearing Hijab (note: in later years Stephanie cites Zahra Lari, a professional ice skater as a Hijabi wearing role model).
After a number of years when it became clear that dancing was Stephanie’s passion, her Mother – a non-dancer – came to the rescue, working to open a studio specifically catering to people of different faiths and ethnic minorities. This studio came to feel like a safer space for young girls like Stephanie that felt excluded or discriminated against. That was almost 10 years ago, and that studio continues to operate today in Sydney’s ever more populous Western suburbs, now the demographic heart of the State’s capital.
In the intervening years Stephanie’s story and hurdles have resonated strongly with dancers around the world and even to those outside the dance community. With 75,000 followers now on Instagram Stephanie has been a previous recipient of the Bjorn Borg, Aim for the Stars and Game Changer scholarships; was invited to Indonesia as a Guest speaker for the Resonation Women’s Empowerment Conference, featured in the Lenovo campaign for International Women’s Day, the global Converse, Love the Progress campaign which invited women to re-define what it means to be a girl, was an ambassador for Gaynor Minden, and is an Ambassador for the Remove Hate from the Debate campaign assisting youth identify online hate speech and tackle it. More recently she was invited by Principal of The American Ballet Theatre, Misty Copeland (whom Stephanie cites as another role model) to be part of the, Swans for Relief video which raised money to assist artists during the recent lock down.
By any measure, it would seem to have been quite a ride, one which Stephanie takes in her stride:
“It’s all so much bigger than me. It’s not just about me wanting to be a professional dancer. It’s about being in this beautiful world full of different people, and giving other people hope to dream big. Because it can be hard in the arts world; to retain faith in your-self, in your craft and to be able to go for it. But it’s even harder if you don’t feel, or if you’re made to feel, that you don’t belong or are accepted in that world.”
And yet 2020, as it’s been for so many young, aspiring artists on the cusp of their professional careers, brought Stephanie’s momentum to a grinding halt. While Stephanie had enjoyed a Nation-wide tour with the Wiggles as a Guest Artist through the latter part of 2019, the year 2020 was supposed to be the year she journeyed overseas and to the various Australian State’s to audition with the aim of being offered a position in a classical repertory company. That is and remains her dream. Yet it wasn’t to be. And like too many of her age with dreams of being offered a company contract, she’s simply had to work to maintain her technique and passion during lock down and hope that companies are able to start back and are looking to hire in 2021.
Unlike many, likely most other classical dancers however, Stephanie’s obstacles moving forward are potentially compounded by her staunch commitment to her faith. To simplify the issue: will she find a classical repertory company prepared to offer her a contract if she’s determined to maintain the Hijab at all times, even on stage for performances? Or will she be forced to modify her commitment to the Hijab? This is a conundrum Stephanie acknowledges and that doesn’t appear to be easily resolved, as it potentially pits her commitment to her faith against her dream to be in a classical repertory company.
Of course, Stephanie has options. Option “A” for Stephanie, is to continue making the argument to have her commitment to the Hijab recognised by existing classical companies with the aim that one will offer her a contract, happy to find ways of modifying their existing and planned repertoire to accommodate. Yet, as a talented dancer she could also audition for contemporary companies that utilise the classical technique as the base of their repertoire and there would likely be many that would embrace her personal religious choice and find creative ways of exploring that choice in story and abstract works. Alternatively, she could consider inviting choreographers to work with her to forge a career as a Solo performance artist, which might also lead to guest spots in company repertoire. And she could even consider the ambitious project of starting her own classical company to tell the stories and embrace the diversity she fervently craves and let the market i.e. the audience, decide what they want. She and that company will either be embraced by audiences, finding a niche offering something people are happily prepared to pay for and become very successful, or else perhaps fail in the moment, yet in time potentially come to be seen as ahead of her time, a forerunner of things to come: a harbinger of the cultural landscape that uses the classical technique, yet discovers more diverse ways to tell our stories, and more diverse Australian stories which better acknowledge and celebrate the multi-cultural, multi-faith Nation that we are.
All this remains ahead of Stephanie. Yet such big questions fail to daunt her spirit. Indeed, toward the end of our 90-minute chat she came most alive and animated as we spoke about these tough questions. My heart beat harder in my chest as her energy revved up, her eyes focused, glistening with exhilaration as she spoke of the exciting challenges ahead. I’ll let her own words conclude this article, because they say it all.
“Things have to change, have to grow. That’s how we develop as a people, as a world.
Where I’m coming from, and many people are, the step that I can take is, to help foster more representation everywhere. We need it. Because it’s only when you have people from all different walks of life together, with a respect for one another, when you have that diverse representation that you then have those interesting conversations, you have those challenging, difficult, sometimes uncomfortable conversations with each other; because you’re surrounded by each other. But if you’re sticking with the same group of people, surrounded by the same people, you end up having the same conversations about the same things and continue to do the same thing.
Let’s talk with people from diverse backgrounds, let’s hire them, work with them, share ideas, stories, not be afraid to argue a bit, and then maybe we’ll learn from each other, develop and grow and I’m just so excited about it. And that’s what we want. We want to look up onto the stages of the world and feel as though we’re represented, that we’re included and appreciated and loved. It’s so important.”
Thank you Stephanie; for your time, energy, passion and for your inspirational courage.
Article by Josef Brown.
Images – Taylor Ferne Morris