Tell us a bit about you and dance.
I’ve been dancing since the age of 4; I studied tap, jazz, ballet, hip hop, modern, flamenco, latin and ballroom. I was on so you think you can dance Canada as a top 18 contestant.
After I finished university, I was on tour with my father who is a musician. I danced flamenco in his shows. He did a tour through California and on his last night, I said to him backstage, “Dad, I don’t think I’m coming home with you tomorrow.” I stayed. I made some friends, I got an agency, I found an apartment, and the rest is history.
Then in 2014, I woke up one day and my whole life shifted. I was sitting on the edge of the bed in my Betty Boop pajamas thinking to myself, I have to do something more. I had an idea to use dance as a tool to help underprivileged kids and at-risk youth find their voice.
Why were you driven to work with children and youth?
When I was growing up, I had the realization that it wasn’t fair that other kids didn’t have the same access to dance or to other things in life that I did. I wanted to do something to give young people opportunities they might not otherwise have.
Shorty after realizing I wanted to do something to give back, I registered for a leadership program. During the first day of the leadership program, each person had to go up to the mic and say what they would like to do as a project to better their community. I walked to the mic and said I want to create a program to teach dance to underprivileged youth so that more kids could have the same access to dance that I did.
How did you create your organization?
That night after my first leadership class, I met a young man named Sixto who is an advocate for foster youth; he had spent time in the system himself. He told me his story and what he thought other foster youth go through, the trauma that they face daily. He spoke about how many turn to the streets, to the wrong crowds, or to drugs and alcohol abuse because they don’t feel like they have an outlet. During our conversation, he said, “I know I don’t know you very well but I know that you have to do this. These kids need you to do this.” I froze, and all I replied was “Okay.” That’s when Fostering Dreams Project was born.
When I started to put this whole thing together, I reached out to choreographers who inspire me and I began to formulate a team. I loved creating something out of nothing and learning as I went. It wasn’t easy, but I found mentors so I wasn’t walking in completely blind. It was a wonderful experience; I discovered a lot about myself, the foster care system, and what the youth go through.
Unless they become adopted, foster youth tend to go from group home to group home. That life is difficult as there is no sense of stability, family, love, support or grounding. When I created Fostering Dreams, I knew that the program wouldn’t just be teaching dance, making people happy and then leaving. I wanted to connect. I want students to feel safe, loved and a sense of belonging. Even if they don’t feel that outside of the dance class, at least they have something to look forward to in the class.
What have you learned about the foster care system through this journey that others might not know?
I’ve learned that it’s broken at the roots. I don’t know how to do that but that’s where it needs to be fixed. There are a lot of different programs for these kids and they need as much love and support as they can get. They’re faced with a lot of trauma. Some of them are born into their biological families and their parents are unfit to raise them and they’re faced with neglect and in the system, they’re placed in different group homes. It hurts to know that from such a young age, they’re faced with so much hardship.
Although I want dance to change the world, I know that one thing can’t change everything- it’s people coming together that can make a change. It takes a village. I hope to inspire many people out there in different cities, in different countries, to do the same: to give back through dance.
What is it about dance and movement that is so engaging for the youth you work with?
Dance is a language; it’s speaking without words. That alone is so therapeutic. You can let movement do the talking and you can release your pain, frustration, happiness and sadness. That’s why I dance. For me it’s therapeutic. For kids who have gone through so much, they need a healthy outlet so they can release trauma in a physical way. Most of the time, the energy comes out in anger, through fights or by using drugs. Dance is a healthy release.
For about a year, I worked with a group of girls at a facility called Freehab, which is a free rehab center for former foster girls who have been on the streets and want to turn their lives around. What I found was that dance was helping them with their recovery. I didn’t know that it would have that big of an effect. I thought maybe it would give them a sense of release and letting go and help them get back into their bodies; it not only did that, it helped them find the confidence that they lost to believe in themselves again, to get sober and stay sober. Most of the girls registered back into school and most of them said that dance helped them stay focused. That was pretty huge.
After five months of the program, one of the girls came up to me and said, “Melanie, do you know it’s easier for me to be on the streets, running from the cops, finding my next high, than to be in your dance class?” I looked at her in shock and confused. “My entire life,” she said, “I’ve run away from things that are hard and you never let me give up. Nobody has done that for me. You taught me discipline and I want to say thank you because now I’m enrolled in college.”
At that moment, I knew why I started this. The classes teach life skills like accountability and team work. We had participants from Freehab do a flashmob at Venice Beach and they performed at the annual fundraiser. They had something to look forward to and they had to be accountable. I assigned a new captain each week and they had to practice on days I wasn’t there. Little things like that make you feel important. Instead of fighting with each other, they supported each other every step of the way. That is exactly what dance is supposed to do: bring people together. I want all youth to have an equal chance of not only feeling that they belong but knowing that they belong. Knowing that they’re worth it and they matter.
Learn more about and support Fostering Dreams Project here.
Melanie Buttarazzi has performed at the Video Music Awards with Pitbull, and Neyo and appeared in music videos with JLO, Pharrell. She is part of the Flamenco dance company ARDE with renowned choreographer Roberto Amaral. She has toured the world performing and choreographing for award-winning musician Robert Michaels for over a decade. Melanie performed at the 69th Cannes Film Festival at the Carlton Hotel Fashion show. Melanie has appeared in film productions both as a dancer and an actress. She been seen in numerous commercials for Budweiser, Sony, Phillips, Carnival Cruise Lines, Bud Light, and Budwiser, to name a few. With a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance, Melanie has taught dance to children and adults around Canada and the US and Europe. Melanie was inspired to create an outreach dance program in Los Angeles The program, Fostering Dreams Through Dance, empowers and educates foster youth and at risk youth to find their voice through the art of dance.