Just before entering Chris Belluzzi’s fourth-grade classroom at Rosendale Elementary, I was warned about him. “You’ll not get that student to dance.”
Given my failures in fourth grade — I was left back — I gravitated towards the children like I was — talented but difficult. Twenty minutes later, Chris was awarded the best part in the dance. Not only did he wind up with the 32-count solo, but he auditioned for my professional youth company Figures in Flight and we spent the next nine years at loggerheads outwardly with great respect and mutual admiration just under the surface.
At the time, Figures in Flight was touring a dance drama in NYS schools aimed to prevent bullying. He also was a natural actor. I type-casted him as the bully. The bully who breaks down at the end of the play. That’s the first time I saw what was in his heart past his tough clownish persona.
Like many teenagers with “bad-boy” reputations and a soft vulnerable core, Chris had good reasons to self-protect. He was sensitive and secretly insightful.
He always knew his mother was going to die early. On overnight school trips when he wasn’t clowning and acting out, he would hide crying with worry about if he would see his mother when he returned home.
In one of those conversations that seem to be commonplace but burn forever in memory, 30 years later I recall his mother telling me, “I love my children so much, I secretly watch them, they are mysteries. They have so many skills and talents, where did that come from? They continually amaze me. I am in awe, love them beyond measure.”
Carol Belluzzi died shortly after Chris graduated high school.
While Chris was working at Mohonk Mountain House, he met students from Eastern Europe. Helping them navigate life here became a passion that caused him to leave, start a relationship with a Hungarian girl and move outright to Hungary without the language, no money and no prospects for employment. His relationship ended but his life in Hungary began.
He has become successful. He started his own company teaching English, communication skills in the workplace, as well as sales, customer service and conflict resolution.
He married, has fathered two sons who he credits with changing him in the best of ways.
Of all the students in my five Figures in Flight dance companies, Chris has remained the most vocally grateful for what he learned. Gratitude should not be the expectation of the teacher, nor does lack of it reflect on the teachings. Appreciativeness is a quality that lives inside a student and is a gift of grace. Gratefulness has been identified by happiness researchers as a pivotal factor in a satisfactory meaningful life. Chris came by it naturally, but many of us have to practice it.
Living in gratitude inspires thankfulness which often leads to a path helping others, another essential quality researchers have identified in happy people. Gratitude on the one hand and paying it forward on the other is a recipe for a joyful life.
The ongoing crisis in Ukraine provides many opportunities to help. Chris and his extended family, his sister who also relocated to Hungary and his in-laws have provided two refugee families sanctuary in their home. That is a level of assistance most Americans are rarely called upon to provide. Unfortunately, colorism and racism exists in other places besides America. Black and brown refugees have been severely mistreated at the Ukrainian boarder while trying to leave and enter Poland. Once in Hungary, where there are very few non-white people, asylum in the home of a Hungarian citizen is more uncommon. Both families granted protection with Chris’s extended family are families of color.
“The family who is living with us now is mixed,” says Chris. “The father is Egyptian, his wife is Ukrainian. In Kharkiv, their business, car and home were destroyed while they hid underground to avoid gunfire and explosions. When I saw the look in this man’s eyes outside our house holding his child, I immediately knew he had been through something devastating before he spoke a word. It was purely instinctual to help. We quickly developed a bond, both of us fathers. The Nigerian family that came to our home arrived after my sister, her Nigerian husband and child moved out of the spare room. We knew the prejudice they would face in Hungary. We watched many ignorant people treat my sister’s husband and child as if they don’t belong here. The black refugees from Ukraine fit the propaganda of the government, espousing colored immigrants come here to take advantage of the system. What you do for others you do for yourself. It is selfish in a way to help the refugees because it feels important and makes my family feel good to just not stand by but to do something. When I came to Hungary, I was welcomed with open arms by my wife’s family. I see these families coming here and I just want them to experience warmth after such cold and horrible situations. They deserve the same welcome that I received when I came and they need the love even more than I did.”