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Meet Mickela Mallozzi and Her Bare Feet!

May 12, 2021

Recently, FC member Mickela Mallozzi, 4-time Emmy Award-winning host and executive producer of “Bare Feet with Mickela Mallozzi” joined Michael Azevedo on Making Media Now, the Filmmakers Collaborative podcast. During their wide-ranging chat Mickela told Michael all about how the idea for the series came to her, what she’s learned through 4 seasons of producing and hosting her own show, how she kept the spirit of “Bare Feet” thriving during COVID and what’s in store for season 5! What follows is an excerpted version of their full conversation. 

MICHAEL: Joining me on this episode is Mickela Mallozzi, 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, rediscovering her family’s heritage in Southern Italy to dancing tango on the main stage in Buenos Aires, the series covers Mickela his adventures. As she experiences the world. One dance at a time. 

She’s been featured in the New York times, Oprah Magazine, Conde Nast, traveler, Dance Magazine, and Forbes. She’s also performed on various television shows, including Sesame Street and The Doctor Oz Show. 

MICHAEL: So a big welcome from the Filmmakers Collaborative community where we couldn’t be more happy to, to have you. 

MICKELA: Thank you so much. And I’m really honored to be part of a part of the family and part of the whole community. It’s been wonderful so far and it’s like you said, it just recently happened. So thank you again. 

MICHAEL: So in preparing to chat with you, I have the pleasure of diving into as many of your episodes that didn’t make me cringe with jealousy. I’ll be upfront about that. I was watching a bunch of them a couple of days ago. I’m talking to you in mid to late April right now. And it happens to be a beautiful day in new England right now. But the day I was watching your episodes, it was about 45 degrees with driving snow, which was about 48 hours ago. 

And I’m seeing you and Italy, and I’m seeing you in Buenos Aires and I’m seeing you in all of these warm, exotic, wonderful locations. So as I was kind of holding a grudge! 

MICKELA: I am, too! I’m like holding a grudge towards myself sometimes. Yeah, oddly enough, since we can’t travel right now due to COVID. And so it’s been a wonderful way to like revisit these beautiful places. 

MICHAEL: So for those who are not familiar with the concept of your series, give us a thumbnail sketch of what it’s all about. 

MICKELA: Yeah. So Bare Feet, I travel and dance around the world. So in every destination I learned the dance and music from that place. I like to say, I make new friends by dancing with strangers. And I feel like it’s the best way to travel. There’s this immediate connection that happens through the universal language of dance and music. And what you see is real. There’s no rehearsal. I get very emotional in a lot of episodes. And I like to show that about what travel can do. 

It’s very transformative. It’s not always pretty, there are moments in my episodes where I’m getting sick off the side of a boat while I’m fishing the Cook Islands, and I’m messing up dances and I fall flat on my butt. And it’s not about learning these dances and becoming a professional tango dancer, professional K-pop star, but it’s the interactions and the magical moments that happen. And the stories I pull from the people by learning their dances as part of their culture.

MICHAEL: And that comes across. There seems to be such an authenticity and an open-heartedness and a pride, on behalf of the people you engage with, in sharing the stories of their culture, the stories behind their dances. You seem to have such an openness to new experience and new people. Does that come naturally to you? 

MICKELA: I think so. I talk about this a lot because I genuinely care about these dances that these people hold. So dear and that are precious to them. If I didn’t care so much, I think they wouldn’t feel so comfortable enough to share them with me. And I’m like a kid in a candy store when I see dances and I see people dancing, I have to jump in with them, whether the cameras are there and not. That’s where the premise of the show came from. It wasn’t me thinking, okay, “What’s a gimmick, or what’s a niche, I can fall into to create a travel show.” 

It was rather, this is how I traveled for fun. I would travel and when I couldn’t speak the local language, I would jump in and dance with people in local festivals and holidays and celebrations and street fairs. And I found these magical moments of immediately connecting with people. And I thought, Wow, there’s something really special here. 

I have enough of a dance vocabulary in my body and enough rhythm that it makes them feel comfortable enough to keep giving me more. And so that is my sort of special power: having the ability to communicate through dance enough that they feel comfortable with me enough to share more. 

Where does it come from? How has it been passed down for so long? And what is it truly represent to them versus just a performance? Because I don’t go around these places and just watch people dance. The whole point of the show is to be immersive and really touch and hug and sweat with it. It’s a very intimate act respectfully. I think that’s where it gets really special. We’re sharing this together and they feel comfortable with me. 

MICHAEL: What’s really interesting is your willingness to kind of be vulnerable and share this love of dance regardless of where you are. 

MICKELA: Thank you. It’s interesting because I don’t have a hosting background. I don’t have any TV production background. And I think that was almost to my advantage: not learning how to be this detached host. The only way I know how to interact with people is to really jump in with them and just like get in there. And that’s what really draws people to the show is they feel like they know me, but they also feel like they’re having that experience with me versus this, like you said, at a very detached experience. And so I feel so honored. 

MICHAEL: How did this come to be a television show? If I remember correctly, it actually started as a blog. 

MICKELA: Yeah. So it kind of had this roundabout way. I used to work in entertainment, the music industry for years. And before that, I worked in management and I used to work for metal bands actually. This is a whole other life. But leading up to that, I went to school for music. I also danced my whole entire life. So when I went to university, decided to go from a music composition and in, at NYU, I eventually graduated and decided to go to the music industry, wanted to be a big time music manager. That was my ultimate goal. So I started working for a firm. Loved it, absolutely loved it. It was like the best training in life too, to be a, a perpetual problem solver. 

But part of the job was also babysitting adults. And I didn’t like that part of the job. But I really love the business side of it. I worked in every aspect: promotion, marketing, merchandising, working with the record label, working on every aspect of the industry. And I learned so much from my old boss. He’s been a mentor of mine, but I just got burnt out and left the music industry and then found dance again in my life and started dancing and then started teaching dance and became a performer in New York City. It was like I sort of made this 180 jump of going to go back into dance. 

And when I would travel for fun, I would start using dance as a means of traveling. So I would teach abroad in the summers and then kind of bop around from that. And I was teaching and kept finding that dance was this universal language. When I couldn’t speak the local language, I would make these immediate connections through dance. I’d be dancing with someone, but then I would be invited to their brother’s wedding in the next day. So we were in Mumbai India and we’re salsa dancing, and then we’re invited to a wedding, right? 

So it wasn’t just let’s dance. It was these friendships and these other doors that open through dance being the key that opened the door. 

And then back in 2010, I was still full time dance teacher. I had this aha moment. I literally woke myself up in the middle of the night, shot up and saw like a projection out of my eyeballs of what Bare Feet is today. I saw this show with me traveling the world, then dancing and dressing in costume and having a crew with me. 

And I was like, I’m going to make a TV show where I travel and dance around the world. And that was the moment. And then I was like, okay, I need to figure this out. 

So fast-forward to me pitching this. And because I worked in music, I also had friends who worked in TV. So I said to them, “Hey, I had this idea for show. What do you think?” And they’re like, “I have a friend who was an executive or a TV producer and you should pitch to them.” And I would always pitch to them. And they would say, this is an interesting idea, but you’re not going to be the host. 

You just don’t fit the bill. We’re going to have to hire a model or an actress. And number two, you’ll be lucky if you get creator credit and good luck. And I kept getting the same as well. I mean, it was realistic to be honest. And I just kept getting the same answer over and over and over again. And I thought, well, screw that. I’m not doing this to give to someone else. Let me hire some friends. Because I went to NYU. Friends of mine were in the film school. 

So we hired friends to go back to my family’s hometown. I come from a family of immigrants. And we stayed at my grandmother’s farm town farmhouse in Southern Italy. And we celebrated this wheat harvest festival. That’s our pilot episode. I spent my life savings and hired a crew to show up there. And we film it. 

I had no idea what I was doing. I’d never been on camera. We come back and put together a sizzle reel and started pitching. It got signed to a third-party production company. They’re like, we have a great relationship with Travel Channel. This is back when Travel Channel used to air travel content, right? 

And two weeks after I signed a year’s exclusive shopping agreement–which was a red flag right there– you should only sign what? 30 to 90 days, max?, Anyway, we find out Travel Channel signed an identical show called Dance Around the World. So this third party production company was like, well, our hands are tied; we can’t do anything with this. And I was like, well, let’s pitch it to someone else. And they are like, “Nope, sorry, we can’t pitch this again for one year!” So I said, can I have my footage back? And they’re like, you can wait your year’s agreement out which has only started two weeks ago. Or you can pay us $30,000. And I’d have to have had to buy back my own footage. So I waited a year. And in that year I was like, I’m not doing this to be on TV. I’m doing this to tell stories of dance and music. So I started a blog and that really built my skills of storytelling through dance. I launched the Bare Feet website. And I was living in the East village at the time in New York City. And so every night I would go out to live music events and dance classes every single night. 

And I would write about it and write about the experience and the interactions I was having and the emotions I was feeling. And so it really helped me build that storytelling skill that I didn’t have. 

I got my footage back eventually and realized I had to hire an editor. And we created these like short little YouTube videos. And I started building this small following and then eventually started shooting more videos by myself. And now today we’re on public television. We’re working on season five. I have four Emmy awards. And we’re on Amazon prime globally. It’s really amazing!

I got to make this show that no one thought I should make right. And there is a vetting process through public television, obviously. So it has to be educational, informational, and entertaining programming. There has to be some sort of standard of production. It has to be accepted by a majority of the PBS member stations. It’s a long process. It’s not just like, you can make a show and just pay and it gets on there. 

However, I get to make my show. I don’t have an executive telling me, you know, what, Mickela, we need more drama here, or we need to show a little more skin here or are there has to be some conflict here? No, there’s none of that. I get to call all the shots. And 96% of the PBS market in the U.S. airs Bare Feet.

MICHAEL: I know you’re about to start shooting season 5. What can viewers expect?

MICKELA: So because of COVID, our season four was only a two-part special. It was a truncated season because of COVID and the Guadalupe Islands episodes were luckily filmed pre-COVID. And we were able to really extract these beautiful stories that we made it into a two part special. And I realized also by doing that, we were able to dig deeper into the stories. Because usually we have to truncate that into half of the amount of time. 

During COVID we were already thinking of doing another season of Bare Feet in NYC. And we started revisiting that idea about a month ago because the city has put a lot of money into these arts initiatives for the recovery of New York. And I revisited the original treatment that I did for Bare Feet in NYC, in other seasons before COVID hit. And I thought, what if we approach this same way, same stories, but with the idea of New York’s on the mend, and let’s see how the arts are essential to a community, especially at a time like this. 

And what’s amazing is we haven’t had to change what Bare Feet is about. Bare Feet has always been about highlighting entrepreneurs, highlighting small businesses and highlighting the arts as an essential part of a community. It just is more amplified now and more pertinent because now we’re seeing what happens when the arts had been taken away or when theaters are shut down or when we can’t go into a dance studio, people are drawn to these stories. Naturally they want them, they want to be able to move and dance. 

MICHAEL: How have you kept viewers engaged during COVID?

MICKELA: Luckily we’ve been on the air a lot. It’s been amazing since COVID viewership on PBS has gone up by 20%. Our season three came out right when COVID hit. So viewers didn’t sense a lag. As far as they were concerned, there’s new, fresh content you’re going. 

A month after the lockdown first hit, I thought, how can we stay connected through dance and music? Our mission is to stay connected with the world through dance and music, right? And I thought, well, we have the technology, right? We have access to people. 

So I took it online for an entire year, every single week, it was called the Bare Feet live series. I would connect with a dancer from around the world. I do a short interview with them and they would teach me part of their culture through dance. And it was an interactive session so that all my viewers could learn dance. So we learned flamenco in Spain, we learned Irish shadow dance in Killarney Ireland. We learned Samba in Rio de Janeiro, and it was just the two of us on screen, but it was on streamed out on Facebook, on YouTube live and on Instagram as well. 

So our, our viewers could interact with us and we had people come every single week. And it was a way for them to feel connected. It was a way for them to have to get up and move because we were so isolated and felt like we were sedentary and just staring at screens. And we did it for a year exactly a year. And I think two weeks ago was our last one. And I had a huge announcement and I was like, “Look, I know this is a really sad day. We can’t do Bare Feet live anymore. But the good news is we’re now working towards a new season!”

MICHAEL: And what brought you to Filmmakers Collaborative? 

MICKELA: I was actually recommended the Filmmakers Collaborative through a through Hillary Buxton. 

And so I was connected with Laura Azevedo. And she did a webinar about fiscal sponsorship and Filmmakers Collaborative and the resources that you guys have, and it was unbelievable and we’ve gotten so much great information. When Laura hosted the webinar, I learned so much. 

We are grateful for the generous support of our sponsors:

Massachusetts Cultural Council
Lowel Cultural Council
Cabot Family Charitable Trust
Liberty Mutual Foundation
City of Boston Arts and Culture