Shalom Life | July 11, 2015

From Haifa to Houston: Israeli Ballet Dancer Makes Unlikely Dream Come True

When you go onstage and perform and put your heart into it and you’re in the moment, it’s the best feeling in the world,” says Shahar Dori

By: Karen McDonough

Published: July 9th, 2015 in Sports » Local

From Haifa to Houston: Israeli Ballet Dancer Makes Unlikely Dream Come True

Photo: Israeli-born Shahar Dori (pictured here in orange shirt), a rising talent in the ballet world

Credit: Amitava Sarkar


When Shahar Dori left his Haifa home at age 17 and made a 6,500-mile trip to Montgomery, Ala., to attend a summer ballet program, he was pursuing a dream. But he had no idea where it would lead.

Dori, now 23, is the first Israeli ballet dancer to join the Houston Ballet, where he is earning recognition as a rising talent in the fiercely competitive ballet world. His journey from one port city, Haifa, to another, Houston, is a story of hard work, sacrifice, and the generosity and closeness of the Jewish community.

Dori’s father, Ofer, was an Israeli folk dancer whose love of dancing rubbed off on his son. As a teen, Dori studied hip-hop dance at Haifa’s Wizo Art and Design High School, where a teacher suggested taking ballet to help his technique. Reluctant to do so –– he didn’t want to wear tights—Dori tried ballet and was instantly hooked. One problem, though. He was 16, which is considered very late to start such a demanding art form, especially if he wanted to advance.

“I fell in love with how hard ballet was physically and how effortless it needed to look,” Dori said in an interview with JNS.org. “There’s so much artistry in it. When you go onstage and perform and put your heart into it and you’re in the moment, it’s the best feeling in the world.”

At the Wizo school, he performed lead roles in classical ballets, then trained while on a scholarship at Israel’s Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company. He excelled and was recognized with the Keren Sharet award for ballet by the American-Israel Cultural Foundation. With the award, the well-known Israeli modern dancer Ido Tamor chose Dori for a summer scholarship program at Montgomery Ballet in 2009. Though he was coming for the summer, Dori knew he wanted to stay permanently.

Moving to the U.S., however, involved the gut-wrenching decision not to join the Israel Defense Forces, a requirement for all Israeli citizens at age 18.

“If I didn’t leave at 17, I would not make it in the ballet world,” Dori said.

“It was a complicated decision,” he added, noting that he is the only member of his family not to serve in the Israeli military.

Following the summer program, Dori become an apprentice at Alabama’s Montgomery Ballet, where he continued training and performing.

At 19, Dori got the break he was seeking. He received a scholarship for a six-week summer intensive program at the Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy, one of the country’s top regional dance companies. The scholarship covered classes and training, but not room and board. That’s when the local Jewish community stepped in to help.

“He was coming to a place where he knew no one and needed a support system,” recalled Maxine Silberstein, the dance and children’s theater director at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston. She and Marilyn Hassid, assistant executive director of the JCC, took Dori under their wings.

“He has such an enthusiasm about being successful, he was determined,” Silberstein said. “We wanted to give him every opportunity.”

The women rallied their friends in the Jewish community, who supplied financial assistance to pay for a dorm room at a nearby university. For groceries, Dori received cards for the Kroger supermarket chain. Families hosted him for meals on Jewish holidays helped keep him connected to the community, said Silberstein.

Meanwhile, Dori thrived and went on to audition for Houston Ballet II—the ballet’s junior company—and made it. Within a few months, at age 20, he was given a contract to join the main company.

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