Mickela Mallozzi is an Emmy® Award-winning video storyteller and host of “Bare Feet with Mickela Mallozzi.” Her passion for dance and music has informed the entirety of her career. In advance of the third iteration of Passion Passport’s Storyteller Series, Mickela talked with us about her background, the beginnings of her TV show, and what she’s learned by dancing her way around the world.
Can you tell us how you got into dance and music?
I started dancing when I was three. No one in my family is musical, but my grandmother got me a little Casio keyboard and I started playing songs when I was about three or four. I’ve always been very musical, so since then I’ve played multiple instruments.
When I got to college, I decided to go the music route and stopped dancing altogether. And then I really missed dancing, and through a course of working in the music industry, and getting burnt out, and then finding dance again, I started teaching dance.
I really believe that if you’re really passionate about something and it’s something that makes you happy, it finds you again. It’s like scratching at you.
What’s cool is that I’ve made a career out of dance in a non-traditional way.
What types of dance did you focus on while you were growing up?
I did the typical ballet, jazz, tap. I actually went to two different dance schools, so I went to a prominent ballet school and I did the Nutcracker for five years.
A big influence on my whole project is the fact that I’m a first-generation American. My parents are both immigrants. My family is very strongly connected to our Italian roots, which led me to a traditional folk dance group that they still have in Stamford, Connecticut, which is where I grew up.
What led you to creating your TV series, Bare Feet?
Everywhere I went I would naturally start connecting with people by dancing with them, whether that was through street festivals or some sort of celebration. And it was natural for me because that was what I did for fun. That’s just my personality — I don’t have qualms going up to strangers and saying, “Show me what you’re doing.”
I just loved that feeling so much that I wanted to start a tour company. But it was 2008 and the stock market crashed … but the idea stayed in the back of my mind. And then in 2010 I was at a show, hanging out with my old colleagues from the music industry, and they were like, “You should make a TV show out of this.” And I was like, “Okay!”
I had no TV background, I’d never been on camera, I’d never hosted anything, I never produced anything, I didn’t know what I was doing. But I knew I loved to dance and I knew I loved to travel, and I thought this was a great idea for a show.
And I thought, I cannot go and discover other people’s cultures without rediscovering my own roots first.
In retrospect, if I could do that episode again, I would. Because I didn’t feel comfortable in front of the camera, I didn’t know what to say, but I also didn’t get to enjoy the moment as much because I was producing it.
How did you become comfortable in front of the camera and teach yourself to produce and enjoy the moment at the same time?
My videographer, who has become one of my closest friends now, but at the time I had just met her through a friend of a friend. When we were filming, I would choke up and she would be like, “It’s me, you’re just talking to me.” Because you look at a lens and it’s this endless, bottomless pit of despair. She was like, “You’re just talking to me, Bridget.”
I came back from that trip, we put together a sizzle reel, we pitched it to a production company who I signed with, and then they basically held my footage hostage for a year. So I started making short videos with my camera, editing short videos, and turning the camera and talking to the camera myself. And that’s how I got comfortable in front of the camera — by being forced to create content alone.
Through this project, what have you learned about dance?
It proves that it’s a universal language.
That’s how the project started because, when I was in places that I couldn’t speak the language of the people I met, I could immediately make a connection by dancing with them. And not only just dancing with them, but approaching them and showing my interest in something that’s really personal to them. Because if I don’t speak your language, I can’t say how much I want to connect with you.
A lot of times when I’m dancing with people I will naturally lower my body, as a submissive stance. I’m lucky that I have the dance vocabulary in my body, but I’m also really good at mimicking people. And that’s really what I’m doing. Sometimes if you see me learning the dances on camera, I focus so much because I’m just mimicking them, and sometimes if they leave, I have no idea what my body just did because I can’t see them anymore. Sometimes I have 10 minutes with people, sometimes I have an hour, but I have to be able to make that connection right away.
Another thing I do is to show the progression of and the evolution of dance. For example, in Ireland I learned Irish Step Dance, but I also learned Sean-nós dance, which predates Irish Step Dance and is the grandfather to flatfooting and clogging. So once the Irish immigrants came to America, that’s what they brought with them. And from that stemmed Irish Step Dance in Ireland, and in America it became flatfooting and clogging and then it became tap dancing.
We’re more similar than we think and I think it’s a very powerful physical message.
Do you think that people underestimate the power of music and dance?
Yes. For sure. I’ll just be blunt, in American culture, dance is only really prevalent in Black culture and Latino culture. I think people would be much happier if they danced more. And if it was socially acceptable — there’s a lot of people who feel intimidated by dance. But you go anywhere else in the world and music is playing all the time and people are dancing all the time.
Dance is evolving all the time. I think that was the really beautiful message that was happening naturally in our New York series. People kept saying, “If we stop this now, it’s over,” because if you’re a Greek community, [you] don’t live in Greece anymore. They’re in the middle of New York where there are other cultural influences around them and they identify as American. So continuing that dance tradition and keeping the traditions alive from the mother country is really important because it’s such a strong part of the identity for other cultures.
What are you hoping people take away from the show?
I want them to think about travel in a different way. Travel is not about taking a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower, it’s not about getting on a cruise ship and staying on a floating mall for seven days, and it’s not about buying tchotchkes. It’s about the people you meet along the way. That can be whether you’re traveling to the other side of the world or your neighbor’s house.
That’s a big part of what Bare Feet is all about. My show wouldn’t exist if there weren’t the people who I was connecting with — and I happened to find a way to connect with them through the arts, just like Bourdain uses food.
That’s what travel means. If you don’t have the people there, it doesn’t matter where you go. And I hope people realize, when you travel, even if you just take one time to talk to someone who’s from there, or who you don’t know, then you’ve already taken the first step in the right direction.
Mickela Mallozzi is the guest speaker for the third iteration of Passion Passport’s Speaker Series at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, January 25. RSVP for the event and check out the sizzle reel for “Bare Feet with Mickela Mallozzi.”