For Gabrielle Saliba, Dance is About Culture and a Connection

At the age of nine, Gabrielle Saliba’s mother put her in a dancing class. By 12, the Nashville area native was in love.

“My mom was like get out of my kitchen,” she said laughing. “I couldn’t help it. It was the best surface in the house.”

Gabrielle, 40, said apart from family, dance is the longest relationships she’s had in her life.

“I loved it. Looking back it was a real sanctuary,” she said. “Now I think about what I want to find and explore within myself, but then it was nice to have an environment where I put my hand on a bar and get quite and be led. Of course, without knowing it at the time, dance was very much a godsend at that age.”

Gabrielle said she also wouldn’t be dancing if her mother and family hadn’t made so many sacrifices.

WHERE IT ALL WENT

Gabrielle grew up in the woods around Nashville in a large family.

“We lived up on a hill in the middle of 50 acres, and no one was around,” she said. “I grew up watching Fame and was starved for neighbors and the city life.”She said in retrospect, she’s grateful for that time in the woods.

She said in retrospect, she’s grateful for that time in the woods.

“The Nashville I knew was a one-story-Nashville,” she said. “My mom has blonde hair, and blue eyes and my dad is a first generation Arab-American, so it was more of her family and a whiter Nashville.”

She said looks-wise people always thought she was a little different, so when they asked where she was from she would just tell them, Gallatin.

“There was always this kind of confusion about people trying to place us, but my dad was also a doctor so socially it put us in a different place,” she said. “Growing up here was always kind of boring to me. I wanted to see more than one way to live, especially as an artist.”

Gabrielle studied dance at Nashville Ballet at 15 years old. After high school, she moved to Cincinnati to continue at a conservatory.

There, for the first time in her life she had friends of different backgrounds. She said people started asking questions about who she was ethnically in the way of wanting to understand.

“People wanted to understand me,” she said. “I loved being exposed to all of those different cultures. It was food for my soul.”

As a young artist, Gabrielle said things were going well for her. She moved to Chicago at 22, where she and a friend later started a dance company all the while she worked on sketch comedy.

In Chicago, a friend of hers told her about a company called Deeply Rooted, whose work centered on the black experience in America. She said that exposure led her to discover multiple ways of dancing through the African American culture.

“It opened me up to not just traditional African dance but to something that fit my soul a little better like storytelling and nonverbal communication. I figured out why I had an impulse to move as a kid.”

Gabrielle said there was a lot of turmoil at home growing up so being able to move her body and emote was very helpful. She said with dance she was able to marry those worlds of drama, pain, and love in a creative way.

While things were going well for her in Chicago, she said wasn’t very grounded in daily life. She said she had this misconception that to be an artist she had to be in a bubble.

“I was in the city, and the people I knew were multicultural, but we were all the same age, and we were all artists. I didn’t know any older people or younger people and I felt like that part of my life was out of balance.”

Arriving at her late 20s, she thought, Well, how do I grow up? Pulling the rug out from under her own feet, Gabrielle decided to go back to Nashville. Her sister was having a baby, and her grandmother was sick with cancer.

“I came back to Nashville not knowing if I was going to stay. I wasn’t sure what I was doing. There was always this, ‘Well, I’m going to leave in a few months,’ type of attitude because I didn’t want to be here.”

She said moving back to her hometown was a big adjustment.

“In Chicago, I would go out dancing all the time. I was either going to have to find a way to carve out and do it or accept that it wasn’t a part of my life anymore.”

When she first moved back at 28, she took a year off from dancing. After that year she realized she’d do anything to keep it in her life. Gabrielle began to work with Actor’s Bridge Ensemble and choreographing a program called Act Like a Grrrl, an autobiographical theater for young women ages 12 to 18.

“The girls are given a writing prompt, but they also present their monologs and perform their words and thoughts,” she said. “The girls also write music together and dance as well.”

Gabrielle has been with the company for 12 years and has helped pilot programs in places like Washington D.C. and Costa Rica.

“It’s community. It’s writing. It’s moving.”

Gabrielle has also done burlesque dancing and helped found a school in Nashville called Delinquent Debutantes. She along with a friend, Freya West said they saw a need where people wanted to dance, but ballet didn’t speak to them.

“It provides a great service for women who want to be together and get in touch with themselves,” she said. “To see how transformative it’s been for people has made me realize I can’t argue with what I see right in front of my face.”

For the past year, Gabrielle has been the dance director at the Global Education Center in West Nashville.

She said as she’s gotten older, her interpretation of dance has opened up tremendously.

“Being at the Global Education Center, I see a lot of people showing up to reclaim things for themselves and their family. Sometimes it’s done through art and music and sometimes it’s done through fashion choices, religions, or concepts of spirituality. For me, I feel like I’m just starting the next leg of the journey in my life with the little kids.”

As a part of being the dance director at GEC, Gabrielle is involved with a dance program for Metro Nashville Public School’s Pre-K. With over 200 students a week, she’s actively trying to embrace each student through their own culture.

“I’m not going to mess your name up, and I’m not going to shorten it. I won’t be intellectually lazy,” she said. “They probably won’t remember me, but I’ll know that I took the time to do all the little things that I can, and hopefully we’ll continue to grow a culture that helps keep them tethered to who they are while being with everyone else.”

Apart from dancing, Gabrielle and her husband also co-founded a comedy club called Third Coast Comedy.

Gabrielle said she and her husband wanted to help create a place where people can come and do their art.

“Nashville is overtly talented for singer/songwriters but it’s so understated when it comes to how talented other people are,” she said. “I look it at now, and I think, of course, I would marry an English teacher that would eventually end up opening an improv comedy club.”

NASHVILLE NOW

Gabrielle said she loves the growth the city has been seeing over the last few years.

“But there are some things I worry about like preserving the diversity of the city,” she said. “I was fortunate to marry a guy who already had a house in East Nashville, but other friends of mine can’t afford the rent there and are having to move further and further out.”

She said she asks herself why people are worried about city ordinances with AirBnB while it takes half the city being displaced before anything is said about affordable housing.

Gabrielle said she’s finally getting her head around how beautiful the city is and now she doesn’t want that aspect to change.

Having worked at Pancake Pantry for five years, she said the one thing she liked about being there, besides all the sugar, was the diversity. She said before the growth she knew that there was diversity in Nashville but that oddly enough it was one of the only places she was able to experience it.

“I felt like people didn’t see each other in places before things started changing,” she said. “Now, I have those multicultural experiences at the Global Education Center and in more parts of the city. I often wonder how else I could experience it and I wonder about the other people that are missing it.”

Gabrielle said she feels like the city is at a tipping point where people from diverse backgrounds will be together more often.

“I hope it’s all levels of economic backgrounds too and not just people who can afford a condo downtown.”

Gabrielle said there aren’t any sure right answers to a lot of the tough questions being asked around the city.

She said when it comes to a bigger picture, a community is about a connection.

“Community is formed the minute you let down whatever is in the way of you knowing another person. It’s the minute you stop being strangers, even in the smallest way.”

Gabrielle said being a part of a community is the difference between feeling alive and then feeling abandoned.

“I work with a lot of people,” she said. “To feel like I’m all of sudden in a community of professional artists, I feel peace in my body, and I feel like it’s affected my overall health.”

Inspired by good conversations and the absences of the things she was used to getting in bigger cities, she said those things make her seek out what she’s missing.

“When I was younger I wanted to be chosen but in my life now I just want to be at the table having a conversation,” she said. “That to me is what success is, and that is under the scope of dance for me.”

To find out more about the Global Education Center, click here.

Thanks for reading Nashville!

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