Mary Lou Sanelli wears many hats in her vast and varied professional life. She’s a dancer and Master Dance Class instructor, choreographer, public speaker, columnist and author. Her most recent works, a children’s book titled Bella Likes to Try, a collection of essays titled Every Little Thing, and her novel The Struck Dance Studio of Yucca Springs, which just went through a second reprint and cover design, draw upon her years of experience as a dancer and dance teacher, but also her own life-experiences and how she can share those in an inspiring way with others.
Most of Mary Lou’s writing is geared towards an adult audience, however with Bella Likes to Try, Mary Lou reaches out to a younger audience to share the journey of a young girl, Bella, who sets out to try new things until she found what “her thing” was. “Be it baseball or soccer or cello, her mother reminds her that, ‘The only failure you will ever make is the failure to try’. In Bella Likes to Try, this courageous young girl celebrates her own courage and willingness to try her best,” Mary Lou explained. “Throughout the story, Bella discovers that dancing allows her to express what she is feeling in a non-verbal way; makes her insides ‘shiver with joy’. Though she isn’t very good at first, she keeps trying. And trying. And trying. Finding an activity where she can celebrate her love of movement and music, Bella exclaims, ‘Dancing makes me feel exactly like…myself!’”
The book is illustrated by artist Jessica Levey, using playful images depicting young people of various sizes and body shapes. “In the dance world, talking about body size is sensitive territory, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t thinking about it,” Mary Lou said. “I want to instill confidence in young dancers. I want them to focus their energy on how good it feels to dance and I hope that Bella can help them with that.”
The Struck Dance Studio of Yucca Springs explores a wide range of human emotion “behind the intimate curtain of a dance studio”. Here Mary Lou shares the determination and struggle to understand ourselves and the behavior of others, not just inside the studio, but in the world around us. With witty and compassionate writing, Mary Lou, through the eyes of her characters, Richard and Lucy, explores contemporary life, the hope for acceptance in the pursuit of one’s dreams, and “what it means to be a son, a daughter, a teacher, and a friend at a moment in their lives when they are forced to approach life as a lesson in forgiveness in an attempt to understand why one hater they encounter hates.”
The sad incentive behind the book stems from an incident one of Mary Lou’s friends experienced in Seattle. “After a friend of mine, also a dancer, was attacked on Capitol Hill by two men who came into Seattle for a little spree of ‘gay bashing’, I knew I would one day write a novel about a dancer and the struggle he goes through to forgive his attackers,” she recalled. “After 19 years of owning a dance studio, I now teach Master Classes throughout the world. I’ve witnessed first-hand how dance saves lives. Students from dysfunctional homes or cultures that forbid them to be themselves, feel safe in the studio. With a sprinkling of humor, I try to capture this safety net in my narrative, but also to approach the story as a lesson in forgiveness.”
Mary Lou grew up on the east coast, and when asked where she was from specifically, she shared an excerpt from a new essay, which reflects her introspective writing style and the emotional ties of living in multiple places throughout her life. “It’s always the same reluctance when I’m asked this question. I can still be so unsure. Am I from New England, where I spent my formative years, went to college, and why New York will always be ‘my’ city? Or am I from the Northwest because I’ve lived here longer? Because a huge part of me still feels like I’m from Port Townsend where I was married and owned my first home, and where my heart (ahh!) keeps returning whenever I talk to friends there. While another part belongs to Seattle, home to me the better part of two decades after I got tired of living in a small, isolated, town. Still, another part is from Oahu, the island where most of my mother’s ashes lie; where I return to whenever work slows down enough to let me be with her again. To save time as well as emotional toll, when I’m on the island and a tourist asks, ‘do you live here?’ I don’t hesitate. I say, ‘yes’. And the most adaptable part of me is now from Bainbridge Island, because by the summer of 2020, Seattle became too demoralizing for many of us who lived downtown.”
Delving deeper, Mary Lou expressed the personal connection she feels towards her ancestral homeland, “And then there is the fact that my innermost self feels as if she’s from Southern Italy, where my DNA derives more of a sense of place than anywhere else, even though I’ve visited only twice. More than once on both those trips, it felt as if I relaxed into precisely who I was. I was meant to live in this country, I thought one smog-pink sunset in Sorento, the sapphire waters of the Gulf of Naples below our pension terrazza. That thought repeated itself almost daily as the unhurried weeks passed by.”
Mary Lou trained at the Broadway Dance Center in New York City, and later, moved to Port Townsend where she owned her own dance studio. When she decided to return to big city life, she moved to Seattle and taught at Spectrum Dance, the University of Washington at Meany Hall, master classes at Cornish School of the Arts, and Velocity Dance Center. She now teaches master dance classes around the country, which not only quenches her love of teaching, but her love of traveling as well.
When it comes to writing, Mary Lou began with poetry, publishing five collections with three different literary presses. These collections dive into ordinary life through the lens of various themes, such as gardening, food, family, friendships and life in the Pacific Northwest. In her essay and memoir collections, she takes a firm, yet heartfelt look at her career as a writer, sharing the joys and disappointments in a way that is encouraging and honest. In her most recent collection, Every Little Thing, Mary Lou bares her soul about her life as a writer, sharing her experiences, which reflect her “profound understanding of the strength and resilience of the human spirit.” Every Little Thing has been nominated for both a Pushcart Prize, and a Washington State Book Award. In addition, she received the Artist Trust Award, a Bainbridge Island Individual Artist & Humanities grant, and was awarded writing residencies both nationally and internationally.
Mary Lou created her own path for her public speaking career. “My talks are all based on being a writer in some way,” she said. “What I wanted to do as a speaker didn’t exist, so I had to MAKE it exist, and I’ve spent my career convincing programmers that an author would be a good speaker for their event. I’m not talking writing conferences, I’m talking conferences that would otherwise not think of having an author speak.”
Her hard work has paid off, and she’s been invited to speak at various venues, including keynote speaker for international organizations, such as P.E.O. International, Soroptimist International, AAUW International, GFWC (General Federation of Women’s Conferences), and asked to speak at writing conferences, fundraising, private events, book clubs, and corporate events.
In addition to her books and public speaking, Mary Lou is a regular contributor to various publications, such as The Seattle Times Op-Ed Page, The Kitsap Sun, Art Access, and Lilipoh magazine. Her work has also been aired on National Public Radio, Weekend Edition, KUOW FM, and KSER FM.
Although Mary Lou travels extensively for work, she enjoys participating in local events, such as readings at Eagle Harbor Books, and the launch of her latest book at BIMA. In July, she’ll be the featured artist at Sotheby’s for First Friday Art Walk, where she’ll be doing a book signing for Bella Likes to Try (and other titles).
Mary Lou’s books are available at Eagle Harbor Books and wherever fine books are sold, in addition, you can find them on her website: Mary Lou Sanelli | Author. Literary Speaker
*Photo and image credits: Mary Lou Sanelli
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