7 Great Destinations for Cultural Dance Experiences

Mickela Mallozzi, host of the PBS show "Bare Feet," takes us to coastal Croatia, to a South Korean island and to a traditional harvest festival in Italy.

Sword dances, bomba steps and other dances from around the world are all in day’s work for Mickela Mallozzi.

As the host of the PBS television show "Bare Feet," she roams the world chronicling the world's folk dances. Her dream job was born from Mallozzi’s personal love of dance and music, and what started with a blog in 2010 and a YouTube video series has now become a lifestyle and a profession.

The show traversed 13 destinations in its first season and heads to the boroughs of New York for its second season.

Along the way, she has learned how to make real local connections, and she says making those personal—and dance—connections is something every traveler can do.

“I always go to my friends and family first. Go on social media. You can connect with people so easily and exchange information in the blink of an eye,” Mallozzi said. “Reach out to the tourism board to connect with dance groups. Pick up the phone and ask them. That’s their job not just for media but for regular people.”

Lastly, she says you have to put yourself out there.

“People get intimidated by dance but you have to just jump in,” said Mallozi. “If you take the time to learn or to appreciate the dance, locals appreciate that. Then other doors open.”

With six years of traveling the world to dance with locals under her belt, Mallozzi shared her favorite destinations for dancing around the world. Though she said all of the locations she has visited were special to her, these destinations were particularly memorable.

Italy, Minturno Wheat Harvest Festival

Italy: Harvest Dancing with I Guillari

Sagra Delle Regne, the harvest festival, is a high point in the year in Minturno. The provincial Italian town, tucked into the northwest bank of the Tyrrhenian Sea, hosts the annual festival based around the Church of St. Francis, home to the fresco painting of Virgin Mary called “Madonna delle Grazie.”

For almost 300 years, the second weekend in July marks the harvest festival where community members seek blessings from the Virgin Mary in their trades as farmers and fishermen. The town gathers for dancing, feasting and a large display of fireworks every year.

“I started this project, and I thought, ‘I can’t discover other cultures roots without rediscovering my own’ so I joined the wheat harvest festival,” said Mallozzi. “They dressed me up and I learned the steps in addition to learning what the dances mean to them.” 

Bomba dance

Puerto Rico: Salsa and Bomba

Close to home for many Americans, Puerto Rico is a fairly untapped destination for dance, culture and cuisine.

“Puerto Rico is a rich region of music,” said Mallozzi. “You don’t even need a passport to go there. There’s the salsa but there’s also the bomba. If you’re from America, it’s not well known. It’s an African-based style of dance. The drummer has to follow the dancer so as the female dancer with the skirts moves her hip the drummer has to hit the drum in a certain way. It’s a dance of communication.”

Haenyeo women, JeJu Island, South Korea

South Korea: The Haenyeo Dancing

On an island outside of Seoul, South Korea, the Haenyeo shared their dances with Mallozzi. The Haenyeo is a group of female fishermen on JeJu Island who catch shellfish by hand while holding their breath for long periods of time, diving to incredible depths.

“As the women get older they get what they call ‘brain pain’ from doing this for so many years,” said Mallozzi. “They do the dance as a way to connect with the fishing they used to do. They mimic the movements that they did in the water collecting shells and they do this dance also before they dive, too. It’s part of the process.”

Dancers on Croatia's Dalmatian Coast

Croatia: Lindjo and Moreska

“Croatia is a beautiful country and their dances are very much alive, especially with the young people,” said Mallozzi. “The borders are changing so often so in their dances you’ll see that a lot of the Balkan countries have similar meters and rythmns.”

On the coast where part of "Game of Thrones" was filmed, the two-man film crew (Mallozzi and her cameraman) found the traditional Lindjo dances of Dubrovnik, the time-honored moreska sword-dancing of Korcula and the traditional dances of Clilipi. Of all the stops Mallozzi made in her trip, Cilippi's dance rituals made her take stock of the powers of dance.

“There was this woman there who was in her early 50s. Her son is a dancer in the group who was in his early 30s while we were there," said Mallozzi. "They came back to town [after the war] and almost 90 percent of the town had been destroyed. The first thing she did was pull out her sewing machine and make her son’s traditional dance costume as a way to deal with the devastation. I was able to dance with the man and it’s amazing ... knowing that there’s more to dance than just performance. It has a deeper meaning than just having a good time. A lot of times it's a therapy for people to cope and process things that are happening.”

Cappadocia, Turkey

Turkey: Dancing to a New Rythm

 In Cappadocia, Turkey, a place known for its “lunar-type landscape” was where Mallozzi got lessons on the “uneven rhythm” of the Turkish people. 

“As a musician 3/4 time is a Western ear but then they have these 9/8 times, grouped completely different from what we want as a Westerner,” said Mallozzi. “It’s an uneasy feeling from the Western ear but it’s so engrained in Turkish culture that it’s in their pop music and dance music. You go to a club and people are dancing and there’s this extra beat. They group them differently and feels different.”

Dia de los Muertos dancing, New York City

New York City: Dance in the Multi-Cultural Boroughs

Where in the world can you find dozens of unique cultural groups with dances, cuisines and music totally different from the next? New York City, of course.

Weaving together the stories of the Chinese, Mexican, Balkan and Jewish communities—just to name a few—the boroughs of New York City preserve a vast range of folk dances. 

“When I was starting the blog I couldn’t afford to travel," said Mallozzi. "I would go out in the city, my own home city, and find traditional dances.”

Appalachian buck dancing

United States: Appalachian Folk Dances

Moving further south in the U.S. during the first season, Mallozzi and her team caught up with an 80-year-old buck dancer that taught her the steps as his grandson, a prize-winning banjo player, gave them music for the dance.

“Our country has a huge tradition of folk music and folk dance along the Blue Ridge Parkway with huge influences from Ireland, Scotland, the United Kingdom and Germany,” said Mallozzi. “Once or twice a week in some of these small towns they’ll have jam sessions in the streets.”