Gabrielle Salibe-Studio 1406

A faint quiver is threatening to give me away. I’m doing my best not to move until the time for this pose is up. All the artists here know I’m a trained dancer, so it’s a point of pride for me to remain perfectly still while they sketch. Knowing that in a few more seconds they’ll have to put their pencils down, the sound of hurried hands drowns out Lionel Richie’s Ballerina Girl.

“It was time to get creative. I decided I’d try anything that came my way.”

Out of my tutu and into my pasties! It’s a quick change for me as I am pulling double duty to model for Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School. I’m posing as both a ballet dancer and as my burlesque alter ego, Bianca 13. Lolly and Larry Lehman (local performance artists and the host and hostess of this monthly art gathering) asked me to trot out my ballet skills before donning the regular tassels and rhinestones that are customary for their models to wear. I’ve made the transition from classical to kitsch before and, fortunately for everyone here at The 5 Spot today, this metamorphosis will take only five minutes. The first time took years.

I was nine when my mother decided she’d had enough of my being under foot in the kitchen. It was the slickest surface in our home, so I was constantly sliding and twirling in my stockinged feet while the other six people in my family had to dodge my flailing limbs if they wanted to eat. Off I went to dance class while they enjoyed the reclaimed linoleum.

That was a couple of decades ago, and I’m still dancing. If dancers were still retiring at the ripe old age of 23, I’d tell you it was just a few years ago, but the dance world is constantly being redefined. Mature dancers are no longer an oddity. Granted 33 isn’t old, but it’s certainly past the time when a dancer is faced with the matter of getting a “real job.” It’s a very similar situation to what so many musicians face in this town. You’re talented, but it’s not keeping the lights on.

I had been living and performing in Chicago for six years when life’s big questions began to loom before me. Turning 30 was on the horizon. My artist’s lifestyle was beginning to fail me as I developed a hunger for things I had not desired before, like furniture and health insurance. The non-profit modern dance company I had co-founded promised to be a success but not financially. Where was the value in my talents? Then one day I went to set a dance on my company, and I had nothing to say. My muse had fallen silent. Paralyzed, I strained to hear her calls.

Directionless and confused, I returned to the home I had been assigned by the universe—Music City, U.S.A. It didn’t really make sense to me or anyone I knew at the time, but it was the only clear signal my heart could register. Besides, it was only going to be for a month or two.

Some time passed before I realized that I was actually going to stay in Nashville. I could have easily picked up with my old life in Chicago, but I felt like there was more to Nashville than what I grew up with. When I decided I couldn’t live without dancing any longer, I looked around to find my place in this city. The only professional opportunities I knew of were Nashville Ballet (where I trained growing up) and Opryland. I was too old for one and couldn’t muster the enthusiasm for the other (I’m not “jazz hands” oriented). It was time to get creative. I decided I’d try anything that came my way.

This open attitude found me competing as a Titan’s Cheerleader Finalist, teaching ballet at Ms. Cathy’s in Brentwood, undulating in a pool of water for the Actors Bridge production of Metamorphosis, dancing as the “other woman” in the video for Cadillac Sky’s Born Lonesome, and choreographing for Marcus Hummon’s Atlanta. Ironically, these disparate opportunities began to challenge me artistically in a way I hadn’t been challenged in Chicago.

Then I found burlesque, the art of the striptease. The community was diverse, well-supported and welcoming. There was a creative allure about everyone’s numbers. A good routine had an element of the unexpected. Gypsy was right, “You gotta have a gimmick.” It’s what makes it an art form and not a trip to Ken’s Gold Club. Somewhere between the glitter and the gams I found the intersection of performance and art. I was reborn.

Burlesque is about maintaining interest, not just showing skin. The audience is as much a part of your dance as the steps themselves. If you don’t have their attention, you don’t have an act. Unlike in traditional theater, these people can politely disregard you and strike up a conversation while you perform. This is why I love Nashville audiences. They’ll let you know where you stand. They are constantly inundated with the world’s best entertainment, and if you’re going to dance here, you have to be able to compete with that. Just dancing around in a unitard is not going to sell tickets.

Women make up the largest part of the audience for burlesque shows. It’s the rapport I developed with these women and my fellow dancers that has brought me back to my love of teaching and studying traditional dance techniques like Graham and Horton. Most women will tell me one of two things after seeing me perform: they used to dance, or they’ve always wanted to dance. There is a pervasive sense of loss that accompanies these statements that I find relatable to my own experience with dance.

These conversations began to happen so often that they finally became the inspiration I needed to open a dance school. The traditional dance school model seemed in need of an update. Why were so many girls growing up dancing only to forsake it when they crossed the threshold of adulthood? How had we alienated boys and young men from movement? Studios had become trophy-centric or intensely technical. While these are both great focuses, they don’t seem to engender an enduring relationship with movement.

Nashville has been very welcoming to new ideas in regard to dance. My business partner Emily Masters and I opened Studio 1406 in East Nashville with all of these things in mind. We foster an environment that encourages students to think for themselves while being careful not to disregard proper training. I’ve also begun work on a program specifically for women to regain their relationship to movement. Haute Dance is designed for women with little or no dance experience. The objective is to help create a bridge between the world of pedestrian movement and the steps we see glorified on stage.

I’ve returned to my own practice and to professional dance with a rejuvenated spirit and a quieter mind. I now seek to temper my craft with both a nod to the expression my soul wants to manifest and to the audience that has agreed to be its witness.

As an artist I’m more interested by my calling today than confounded by it. I want to tread where art and entertainment meet without pandering to one or forsaking the other. Today that middle ground is modeling and dancing for the Dr. Sketchy’s audience. Tomorrow it could be anywhere.

by Gabrielle Saliba   |  photography by Lawrence Boothby

Gabrielle will be performing The Goon Presents Burlesque at The Belcourt Theatre on December 10.

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