Seeing someone learn a new dance for the first time is usually a bit awkward. But that's not the case when you're watching Mickela Mallozzi of Bare Feet, a New York Emmy-winning travel series that follows her as she dances her way around the world.
Mallozzi has a natural ease that comes from dancing for more than 25 years. And yet there's something else there, something that makes you (and the more than 150,000 households in the New York metro area that tune in to her show) want to watch her—it's the huge smile on her face the entire time she's dancing.
“I'm your friend next door who's a silly girl who likes to enjoy life," Mallozzi explains before breaking into that smile.
Bare Feet is entering its third season on NYC Life, the official channel of New York City, and will be carried on more than 128 PBS channels nationwide starting April 2016. Since its launch in 2010, Bare Feet has taken Mallozzi all over the world, from celebrating Carnival in St. Thomas to learning how to Irish step dance in Dublin. She's gone from asking friends and local passersby to videotape her dancing to having a team of three produce her show.
“I'm just now coming to terms with the fact that it's doing all right," Mallozzi says. “Just now, 2016 hit and it's just like, this is going to be a killer year."
Mickela Mallozzi, right, has a costume adjustment before filming an episode of Bare Feet in New York City.
Mallozzi's caution came from the fact that her path to her dream job was pretty circuitous. Dancing and music had always been her passions, but after six years working in the music industry, she soon felt burnt out. In 2008, she took a PR gig and auditioned for dance teacher positions on her lunch breaks. It was then that the seed for Bare Feet began to take root.
“When I would travel for fun, I would find people to dance with," she explains. “I had such amazing experiences. [So I thought], why don't I start a dance tour company? That would be so much fun! I reached out to family friends who worked for a tour operator. They were like, 'That's a great idea, but it is the worst time right now. The market just crashed, no one's traveling. So good luck with that.'"
Instead, Mallozzi began working as a dance teacher, but she returned to the idea of dance and travel a few years later, after a friend suggested she turn her idea into a TV show. She started her own production company and used her savings to book a trip to her family's hometown in southern Italy so she—with a few friends acting as her crew—could reconnect with her roots through dancing in a festival.
Behind the scenes of Bare Feet as Mallozzi films with members of the mariachi band Mariachi Flor De Toloache.
“I knew all the processes to make it real, but I had no TV or film background," she says. “I had never been in front of a camera. I spent way too much money [almost $20,000] because I didn't know better, and we filmed a whole episode, probably a lot more content then we needed. Basically my education to get to where I am now was trial and error."
After a disagreement with a production company regarding the rights to her content, she reworked her idea into a blog. Whenever Mallozzi traveled, whether abroad or in New York City's diverse neighborhoods, she would write about the experience, create short videos and upload them on YouTube. “At first people said, 'It's too niche. People just want top 10 travel lists. You need to add food, you need to add this,'" she says. “And I was like, 'No, I just want to travel and dance around the world.'"
After teaching 17 dance classes a week, much of her free time (and money) went back into Bare Feet. She would barter with creatives, offering her marketing and PR skills for their videography and editing know-how. Mallozzi began participating in travel communities, where she met a New York Times writer in 2013 who included her in an article about travel blogging. That press clipping got her in front of brands who paid her to create sponsored content—on her own terms, of course.
Mallozzi gives direction to her crew during filming.
But after three years of blogging and press trips, Mallozzi was ready for a change. “2013 was when I hit that, 'Is this going to be a hobby for the rest of my life or do I want to make it my career?' [limit]" she says. “That summer I decided I'm not going to teach anymore. I'm just going to go full-on Bare Feet. I started putting more YouTube videos out, I [got] more trips sponsored."
Wanting more people to see her world and local adventures, Mallozzi decided PBS would be the best distributor. At a public television event, she met a PBS host who eventually introduced her to the head of programming for NYC Life.
“I met her and I said—I didn't have a TV show—but I said, 'Look, I have this TV show,'" Mallozzi says, laughing. She showed the exec content from Italy and a trip to Argentina. “Two months later she said, 'Yeah, we want to start airing this next month.' I was like, 'Great! I don't have a TV show!'"
Members of Mariachi Flor De Toloache help Mallozzi adjust her costume.
Mallozzi quickly got her existing content ready and leaned on her friends in the industry to learn how to produce a show. The first season had its hits and misses, but its core—the great stories and personal connections found through dance—won Bare Feet a loving and devoted audience. In February 2015, Mallozzi was nominated for two New York Emmys and won for best host.
Now season three is underway and focusing on the rich immigrant communities in New York. The Bare Feet blog has become a hub for information on the brand and Mallozzi's adventures. On the day of this interview, Mallozzi is fresh from learning the Mexican grito with an all-woman mariachi band in the East Village and is headed uptown to learn a dance from Haiti. Though that fun-loving smile is on full display, she's very serious about her business. Every cent she makes from Bare Feet goes back into the company, and she's creating different revenue streams "to keep this machine going," she says.
"I know the value of and I own all of the rights to my product," she explains. "Therefore I can license out the show. I am currently working on co-production deals, including my new season with NYC Media. I see making the best possible product as the best investment for me and my brand—[when] value increases, more opportunities come my way, which in turn become more outside investments into the business."
Mallozzi celebrating the shoot with members of Mariachi Flor De Toloache.
Now Bare Feet has an underwriter; subway, bus stop, and taxi TV ads are being made; and the tour company idea that started it all is coming into fruition, with one successful tour under its belt.
"With bigger distribution coming for the series," Mallozzi says, "I see the show as marketing the brand overall, which in turn will promote and drive people to my site to see the tours we offer. We plan to do five to six tours a year [to] a different destination, and each tour has 10 to 12 people. At the beginning, [I'll] attend the tours and have a co-tour guide with me, but eventually I want to have enough tours running that we only use local guides—I can't travel this much forever!"
“The crazy thing is from the moment someone said, 'You should have a TV show,' in this weird backwards way, I ended up in that spot," Mallozzi says. “I couldn't find a job that I liked, so I created a job that I love."
Photos: Jehangir Irani