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This Teen Had The Perfect Response To People Who Said She Couldn't Be A Ballerina

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Photo: Courtesy of Stephanie Kurlow.
Stephanie Kurlow has wanted to be a ballerina as long as she can remember.

"I have been dancing since I was two years old," the Australian dancer told Refinery29. "It's always been a huge part of my life and a passion of mine."

But she said her pursuit of that passion hit a rough patch in 2010, after she converted to Islam. While Kurlow, now 14, continued to perform in films, musicals, and talent competitions, she was shocked to find that there were "no full-time ballet studios that readily accepted me wearing hijab."

Determined to dance, she refused to back down.

"I found it very unfair towards girls who do not fit the mold of a stereotypical ballerina and decided to pursue my dreams, whatever challenges I might face," she said.

So Kurlow decided to take matters into her own hands. She created a LaunchGood crowdfunding campaign to raise money to support her dream of training full-time to be a professional ballerina — and eventually open a new performing arts academy that will cater to students of all religions.

Her push to promote diversity made international headlines, and caught the attention of Swedish company Björn Borg. The apparel brand, founded by a tennis star, awarded the teen with a scholarship to cover the cost of her training.

Kurlow knows that this is just the first of many en pointe steps she must take to achieve her dream. There might need to be some adjustments to her performances, modest costumes and, in some cases, special choreography. And, as with any trailblazer, she's already faced some pushback. But she's committed to leading the way.

"Being the first Muslim hijabi ballerina is quite challenging, because the world hasn’t seen it yet," she said. "The traditional image of a ballerina is slowly changing and there is still a long way to go. The ballet world needs a little catching up to do, but it's definitely happening."

Kurlow shared her story with Refinery29 from her home in Australia. Ahead, her thoughts on her journey, her hopes for the future, and more.

Why did you decide to convert to Islam?
"First, I wanted to be like my mum, but later I started to read a lot and everything made sense for me in Islam. For example, I like to be modest and I like to keep my dignity, I like to know the purpose of my life. I like to live a healthy lifestyle and avoid harmful things. The hijab is so important to me because it's a part of who I am and represents the beautiful religion that I love. If people have the right to dress down, then I have the right to dress up and my hijab is my expression of love to my creator. I believe it covers my body but not my mind, heart, and talent."

I don’t need to take my hijab off and sacrifice my beliefs just to fit the mold and be like everyone else.

Stephanie Kurlow
What changed to inspire you to begin working toward your dream of being a professional dancer again?
"I saw Michaela DePrince and Misty Copeland as the first African-American ballerinas and thought that was phenomenal, the ballet world is slowly changing and it's something I definitely want to be a part of.

"My other inspirations are [dancer] Li Cunxin, Zahra Lari, the first Muslim figure skater from the United Arab Emirates, Amna Al Haddad, a weightlifter from UAE, and the first [fencer] in hijab, Ibtihaj Muhammad. They're training so hard for the Olympics now and they have opened so many doors to young people who often miss out.

"You don’t need to sacrifice your beliefs and your way of life to do something you love. You can combine both. It is difficult but it is possible. ... I want to find some appropriate options for me to express myself and do what I love and help girls like me. So I have decided to start a crowdfunding campaign to fulfill my dream to train in a top ballet school to receive qualifications to be able to open a diverse performing arts school, where everyone is welcome."
What's the biggest challenge you've faced so far?
"I have received a lot of anti-Muslim comments. I understand — all they know about Muslims is from TV and social media. They’re ignorant and don’t bother to pick up a book and do research or go and meet some Muslims in person and see that we all have the same values and same feelings like love and kindness.

"I think that Islamophobia is something we're still tackling. It's definitely happening, but people need to be more aware of different religions and to respect other peoples' views. The anti-Muslim comments make me more determined to change the world for the better and make people more educated about the beauty of Islam.

"The biggest misconception of being a hijab-wearing ballerina is that you can’t be a professional ballerina. I disagree and so do thousands of my supporters that I’m so grateful for. I can become an amazing professional ballerina and still keep my faith. I don’t need to take my hijab off and sacrifice my beliefs just to fit the mold and be like everyone else. Ballet is so graceful and modest and that’s something I can do in hijab.

"I know I am not perfect and I have long way to go. I am going to strive hard to become a better ballerina and a better Muslim."

How did you feel when you learned that
Björn Borg decided to offer you a scholarship?
"I felt so amazed and it was such an incredible feeling. It's truly changing my life, which in turn I hope to change other peoples' lives. Together we can change the world to be a better place and change ourselves to be better people.

"I would like to thank Björn Borg so much for awarding me with their 'Game Changer' scholarship — Mr. Borg is an inspiration himself. He was an athlete that always did things his own way. He changed the way people viewed tennis and opened the sport up for everyone. Now that I received the scholarship, my life has completely turned around. Now all the hard work begins to become a professional ballerina so I can open my own performing arts school where everyone's welcome."

What message do you hope to send to young girls who see you dancing while wearing your hijab?
"Ballet is acting and telling stories and emotions through movement. How a simple turn of your head or the height of your arm can express a completely different emotion is amazing. Ballet is so graceful and modest and that’s something I love. I want people to see that being different isn’t something you should be ashamed of — people need to realize that being different is something you should be proud of and embrace. Women should not have to dress a certain way they aren’t comfortable with in certain sports and the performing and filming industries.

"I want young people to be proud of their identity and looks and find a way to achieve their dreams and stay unique. Be yourself and be proud of your identity, [whether you're] Muslim, Sikh, Aboriginal, Jewish, Christian, atheist, or anyone else. This isn’t just about me becoming the first hijabi ballerina. It's about young people who often miss out wanting to become ice skaters, journalists, and actors to pursue their dreams. Us young people can do anything and everything and nothing can limit you from being yourself and at the same time achieving your dreams.

"Some young people are saying that after seeing my story they have hope to do something they love without being afraid of anti-Muslim discrimination and being a victim of their own fears and self-consciousness because of the hijab they wear. Breaking boundaries and stereotypes is difficult but us young people can do anything and everything — nothing can limit you from being yourself and at the same time achieving your dreams."
What has the response been so far?
"I received so many beautiful messages, all the way from America to Europe to Asia to Australia telling me I’m an inspiration to them, telling me that they want to pursue their dreams, that they feel empowered, which in turn makes me feel more empowered. That what I am doing as the first Muslim ballerina in hijab — changing people’s lives and their perceptions of Muslims.

"People of different backgrounds and beliefs are sending me their own stories and how I inspired them to strive towards they dreams. Some Muslim girls are saying they don’t see the hijab as an obstacle anymore and they have started wearing hijab and have become proud of their identity. I want everyone to live in a world with greater acceptance, I think that’s extremely important."

What is your advice for young women who have big dreams?
"My advice would be to not give up and not let major or minor setbacks let you not feel passionate or motivated to pursue your dreams. Some things are meant to happen, and when god doesn’t give you a certain opportunity you wanted, he replaces it with something even better and more rewarding. If you have a big dream and are passionate about it, then go for it, because not only are you making yourself happy, you are inspiring other people to do the same; and that is very important.

"My advice for young girls who hope to start a career in the performing arts would be to be persistent and every day to take a step — even if it’s a very small step — toward your dream. Never wait for the perfect moment – it may never come. Don’t make excuses: I wear hijab so I can’t do it. Or, I will do it when I lose some weight, or it is too late for me to start. Instead of sacrificing your values, beliefs or looks, think how can your dream and your faith complement and benefit each other. Look outside the box and see possibilities where others see problems."
To learn more about Kurlow's dream and crowdfunding campaign, visit her LaunchGood Page. You can also follower her on Instagram here.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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