Documenting the World, One Dance at a Time: An Interview with Mickela Mallozzi (BA ’05)

Mickela Mallozzi is the four-time Emmy® Award-winning Host and executive producer of Bare Feet with Mickela Mallozzi, a travel series highlighting the diversity of dance which airs on PBS stations nationwide and on Amazon Prime globally.  A professional dancer and trained musician, Mickela decided to start a journey around the world, taking her camera with her to follow dance in the lives of everyday people wherever she went.  From re-discovering her family’s heritage in Southern Italy to dancing tango on the main stage in Buenos Aires, the series covers Mickela’s adventures as she experiences the world, one dance at a time.  She has been featured in The New York Times, Travel Channel, Dance MagazineForbes, American Express, and AFAR Media, and she has performed on Sesame Street and The Doctor Oz Show. In Season 3 of Bare Feet with Mickela Mallozzi, airing on PBS in Spring 2019, the destination of each episode is based on Mickela’s own DNA map.

We interviewed her about her NYU education and her life on the road.

Mikela Mallozzi

At Steinhardt you majored in music business, how did that shape your career trajectory?

I actually started at NYU as a music composition major in the jazz studies program at Steinhardt. I decided mid-way through my junior year that I wanted to transfer to the music business program because I realized I was still a creative person, but I was also very much business-focused.  I had been interning at record labels since my second semester freshman year, and I was really driven by the ins-and-outs of the music industry.  I thought I wanted to become a big-time music manage.

After graduating, I ended up working in the industry, eventually landing at management firm, which I loved.  My job was to be a problem solver.  I was constantly being thrown into situations where I needed to come up with solutions for my clients or my boss (or usually both at the same time). Those experiences helped shape me for when I eventually created my own business, Bare Feet, in an industry that I actually had NO experience whatsoever. I was prepared to figure out solutions in scenarios that I had never been in before. That was the greatest training for me by far!

Mickela at the Asrlar Sadosi Festival in Navoi, Uzbekistan. (photo credit Madina Khusanova)

What was the student culture like at NYU when you were an undergraduate?

My time at NYU was invaluable because of the diversity of the students on campus.  I was surrounded by musicians, dancers, educators, writers, actors, pre-med students, soon-to-be-dentists, engineers, and so many creatives!  This is what the general population of a major city looks like, and to have a school just as diverse with the access to all of these types of students is absolutely incredible.

What is also incredible is using the city as your campus as well.  (We weren’t beholden to the NYU campus whatsoever.) I was constantly seeing and supporting friends at their music gigs, performances, shows, readings, and more. I was always being inspired by the work of so many different types of students, it really made me think that anything was possible; I could creatively come up with an idea and there would be no limit to where that idea would take me! I’m still very close to so many people from NYU, so many friends who I get to see shine in their own right, and so many friends who have also evolved from their NYU days. I also met the love of my life in the jazz studies program – my husband – we were in the program together — and his own creative work inspires me every day!

Mickela Mallozzi with members of gypsy band Taraf de Caliu in Clejani, Romani. (Photo credit: Evan Carter)

Was there an “ah-ha” moment in your past when you thought — this is how I turn dance into a career; into an ethnographic study?

It’s funny you should ask that because I literally did have an ah-ha moment. It was January 15, 2010 — I’ll never forget the date because I haven’t been able to sleep very soundly since then -– I woke myself up in the middle of the night with the idea to start a TV show, documenting my adventures around the world as I made new friends by dancing with strangers.

The idea didn’t come from nowhere; I had studied abroad the summer between my sophomore and junior year at La Pietra Villa in Florence, and from there I caught the travel bug. From that moment on, I made sure to save up and travel internationally at least once a year (crashing on friends couches, working aboard, any way to see the world as inexpensively as possible), and in every place that I traveled where I couldn’t speak the language, I would dance with people (usually in the streets during a local celebration or holiday). And from there, I made immediate connections through dancing with people, so much so, I found myself being invited to family weddings, someone’s mother’s home for a family meal, and so on: it was this magical key to opening every door I wanted to without speaking a word!

So, the build-up over time culminated that night in my sleep where I woke myself up, seeing what is now Bare Feet, perfectly clear as if it was projected on a wall in front of me. That was my ah-ha moment 100%!

Mickela Mallozzi learning Oriental dance with Sylvia Serena in Kurion, Cyprus. (Photo credit: Shoot My Travel)

Describe a typical work day.

I wear so many different hats – because I am the creator, the producer, the host, the fundraiser, the publicist, the marketer, the social media person, the accountant…well, you get the point.  A typical day could be anything from writing press releases to pitching to media outlets to do a story on me in an magazine or website to doing research for an upcoming episode to dancing with a Berber tribe in Morocco as we’re filming an episode abroad (I just did that yesterday, I’m writing this from my hotel in Fes, Morocco!), to pitching to brands and sponsors for funding –as an independent series on PBS, the burden of fundraising falls on the production company — to sitting with my editors, recording voice-over in preparation for delivering the show.  Most of the work is admin work, prepping for the fun stuff.

To put things in perspective, we are currently filming Season 3 of the series, and the last time I was filming Season 2 was over two years ago – it takes about two years between every season to prep, fundraise, and film!

Mickela Mallozzi dancing pizzica with Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino in Puglia, Italy.(photo credit Shoot My Travel)

Do you have a good war story about your toughest assignment?

The beautiful part about being the executive producer of my own show is I get to call the shots – where we film, who we meet with, etc.  But even though I make all of those executive decisions, there is always chaos that ensues on a shoot. No matter how much you prep, something will always go wrong, ALWAYS. And you can do one of two things: either panic and shut down and use up energy complaining or being upset that a segment is ruined…or, you can take the terrible situation and figure out how to make it work, and usually, the episode turns out better for it. We really have to embrace the chaos.

Because I’m such a small crew, I have the capability of making these production changes immediately while we’re filming if necessary.  And sometimes, we have segments that aren’t confirmed until after we arrive at the destination. (That is stressful, but always worth it.)  For example, we were trying to find a Balkan brass band for our Romania episode for this new season, and I couldn’t get a hold of ANYONE for months. The day before we left Romania, we finally confirmed filming with a world-renowned gypsy band in Clejani, Romania, in their home. I was somehow connected with their manager through a long-line of random connections on Facebook…it ended up being one of the best segments of the entire episode!

Mickela Mallozzi dances with the children of the Pelegong Homestay in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Photo credit: Nick Nichols)

What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned from your travels?

 The more places I visit and the more people I dance with, the more I’m reminded that we’re pretty much all the same. We all need food, shelter, love, and community to survive. It’s a very good lesson to keep revisiting over and over again.