My story begins like many professional jetsetters’ — my first time traveling overseas independently was when I studied abroad in college. It was the summer between my sophomore and junior years at NYU, and I was to spend six weeks at a villa in Florence, Italy, studying Renaissance Art History and Intensive Italian.
Both my mother and father were born in Italy, emigrating with their own parents in the 1960s, so I grew up with a very strong Italian-American identity at home. But this trip to Italy was different than the few family vacations we had taken in the past to visit my grandparents — I was alone, I was an adult, and the experiences I was going to have were completely dependent on how I embraced this journey.
Six weeks in an Italian villa in Tuscany, surrounded by fascinating and new people, with one of the most beautiful cities nearby could be a transformative experience for anyone. And for me, it was just that.
I started to really learn the true language of my mother tongue (My parents spoke an Italian dialect while I was growing up, and I was too shy to respond back in their language). Slowly, I fell completely in love with the culture that could have been my own had the fate of my parents’ immigrant story been different. I started using the proper language out of necessity and no longer felt self-conscious of my grammatical errors when trying to communicate with Italians in Florence.
I became adventurous in my pursuits, traveling on the weekends with my new friends to other areas of Italy, realizing that trains and buses and public transport are one of society’s greatest assets and a luxury I had always taken for granted.
I also became acutely aware of what it meant to be an American abroad at that time — 9/11 had only taken place seven months prior, and President George Bush had already begun the campaign against Iraq. My identity as an American shaped many of my interactions with everyone I met, but discourse and conversation were key to understanding the true scope of my own country’s reach.
Above all else, though, I became addicted to that feeling of incredible independence. My passport was a ticket to new experiences — a booklet with pages I wanted to fill!
I returned from my travels that summer a transformed young woman, invigorated and inspired to see more of what the world had to offer. The following summer, I received a scholarship to study abroad in Rome and headed back to that beautiful country.
From that summer on, I realized I needed to continue this journey of travel through whatever means possible.
Fifteen years later and that insatiable need to travel, learn, and explore hasn’t gone away — I’ve made travel my career, connecting with people through the most transformative and immediate way I know how — by dancing.
I am the host and creator of the Emmy® Award-winning travel series on PBS, “Bare Feet with Mickela Mallozzi,” in which I experience the world one dance at a time. Most of my viewers don’t know this, but the idea for the series was sparked by the way I traveled on these yearly trips after my study abroad experience. I made a point to save up money for one big trip a year — the biggest expense was always airfare so, to save money, I stayed with friends or family, found inexpensive accommodations, and used public transportation to get from one country to the next.
And, in all of these places, I would dance with people. This wasn’t a conscious decision I made; it simply came naturally to me. Most of my travels took place during the summer — maybe for five days, maybe for 10. I made a point to attend celebrations, festivals, and holidays of the summer months, as well as any dance events or local music performances in town squares, public parks, or in the streets. This is where I would approach complete strangers and start mimicking their dancing, gesturing with body language to ask them to lead my movements, to teach me their traditions.
Looking back, my approach to these experiences was simple, yet incredibly effective, especially given that I typically couldn’t speak the local language. Complete strangers immediately became new friends because they recognized my genuine curiosity to learn something so special to them, something that identifies them as a person. With those extremely simple and quick interactions, situations changed in an instant. I was invited to join a get-together at a local café with new friends, to eat a family meal in someone’s home, and once was even encouraged to crash the wedding of a new friend’s cousin!
I use dance to start my conversations around the world. I’ve been to more than 30 countries in which a majority of the people don’t look or sound like me and, because these intimate interactions have led to friendships, I have grown to understand something very fundamental about our world — we are all basically the same.
We all need food to eat, water to drink, shelter, clothing to wear, companionship, love, and happiness to survive. Whatever religion you follow, whatever color your skin is, or wherever you may come from, none of these basic necessities change.
Travel makes these realizations possible — whether that’s traveling to the other side of the world or to the other side of the street. In a culturally diverse city like New York, the number of languages you can hear in one subway car alone is astounding and, everyone, including myself, has taken a journey to arrive where we are and wherever we want to be in our life. It is these journeys that transform us forever.