This woman’s dance company is breaking barriers
Posted by NowThis on Wednesday, October 26, 2016
As Rockettes, working together as a team and supporting one another are of the utmost importance. We would not be able to achieve our legendary precision choreography and formations if we didn’t all work together as one unit. Marisa Hamamoto, founder of professional wheelchair dance company Infinite Flow, understands the importance of teamwork more than anyone. Every member of her company brings dedication and the spirit of teamwork to their classes and performances, with the shared mission of uniting people of all abilities around the world through dance.
There’s a dancer inside of everyone, says Hamamoto. Your appearance and physical abilities don’t matter—the only thing any dancer needs is a passion for movement.
“With Infinite Flow, I had this vision of building a world-class professional dance company that focused on ballroom with wheelchair dancers. In trying to get this nonprofit going, I realized our true mission was not just to dance, but to inspire a social movement for inclusion,” says Hamamoto.
Since founding the Los Angeles-based dance company two years ago, Hamamoto has shown how dance can unite people of all abilities and identities through viral videos, like a flash mob she shot at the Venice Beach Boardwalk last November. A group of 100 dancers, comprised of wheelchair users, people with visual impairments or hearing loss, others with intellectual disabilities and even a dog with a missing limb, put on an energetic performance set to Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling.”
The special celebration of diversity, which has resonated with more than 300,000 viewers and counting, is the result of Hamamoto’s own rollercoaster of an experience in the dance world. Even though she devoted herself to the art since the age of 6, she faced discouragement from instructors for not having the “perfect ballet body” and rejections after auditioning at professional companies as a young adult. The blows were strong enough to make her believe she should quit the dance world altogether—but she persisted.
“I gave myself a second chance to pursue a dance career,” says Hamamoto. She soon jetted off to a private university in Tokyo and joined a sports biomechanics lab to better understand body mechanics and continued to take ballet class to discover how Japanese dancers came to “be like machines and develop something different in the ballet world.”
The experience renewed her passion and belief that expressive dancers come in all shapes and sizes. “Even though I spent the majority of my day in class and on the computer doing a lot of academia, I figured out how to keep myself dancing whenever possible.” She dove into avant-garde forms of movement, often incorporating acrobatics in her routines.
“I was living and breathing dancing more than ever,” she says.
But Hamamoto’s progress came to a screeching halt during her senior year in 2006. “In the middle of a contemporary dance class, I suddenly collapsed and couldn’t move.”
She was rushed to the emergency room, where doctors were baffled by Hamamoto’s inability to move her legs, arms or hands. “After a full day of testing, I received a diagnosis of a rare disease called spinal cord infarction, basically a stroke in my spinal cord, which left me paralyzed from the neck down. The doctor said he didn’t know if I would ever regain my mobility.”
“I really thought my life was over,” she says. “Dancing was everything to me up to that point.”
Rather than give up, though, Hamamoto noticed she could just barely wiggle a couple of toes and decided that’s how she would dance. “Any tiny movement or sensation I felt in my body, I danced on it,” she says. “I would have music running through my head all day and I would be dancing to it with my toes or whatever part of the body I could feel at that time.”
Hamamoto began using this technique, which she refers to as “dance rehabilitation,” throughout her hours of daily physical therapy. Rather than just raising her knee 10 times a day, as her treatment program required, Hamamoto danced each lift, taking inspiration from songs and images.
“As a dancer, we don’t just move a limb. The way we move is very much from the inside to the outside,” she says.
She walked out of the hospital two months later, not only with the majority of her mobility, but also with a new understanding of the power of dance to enrich the lives of people of all levels of ability. This experience was what drove her to explore the dance opportunities available for people with disabilities a few years later, when she moved back to California.
“I started to wonder what my life would look like if I had not recovered my mobility,” she says. “But the dance opportunities I found for wheelchair users at expos and in my research were disappointing. What I saw could be so much better.”
She had come to admire the dedication of the students in her salsa and ballroom classes—adults who had never danced before—to strive to reach their full potential. They came back to class every week to challenge and improve themselves—why shouldn’t wheelchair users have the same opportunity to succeed?
“In that moment, I saw that someone needs to do something about this—and that someone was me. I have the resources and knowledge to take wheelchair dance to an entirely different level,” she says. “Everybody deserves to find that dancer inside themselves, and I could not leave people with disabilities without that opportunity.”
And so, Infinite Flow was born in March 2015, growing to serve more than 200 dancers with pay-what-you-wish classes that allow them to express themselves through movement.
“One of the challenges at Infinite Flow is incorporating the varieties of bodies, which includes mobility equipment,” Hamamoto says. “We never use the word ‘adapt.’ Instead, we translate each movement into our own unique bodies, which may or may not include a wheelchair.”
As for which dancers participate in Infinite Flow’s performances, Hamamoto keeps her standards high.
“I pick and choose dancers through auditions. Just like the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has created an image of African American dancers who are phenomenal, my role is the same with dance and disability. It’s possible to create a company that’s mesmerizing to watch and has dancers with and without disability dancing together.”
While Infinite Flow may be bootstrapped (it’s largely self-funded by Hamamoto and a few donors), the founder’s mission is anything but.
“Maybe one day we’ll be on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ Maybe one day we’ll do a kick line with The Rockettes,” says Hamamoto. “But more than anything, I want to influence the next generation to see dance as a symbol of inclusion.”
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