Marisa Hamamoto, a dancer, founder and artistic director of Infinite Flow from California, knew all too well what it was like to be different from a young age.
She grew up during the 80s and 90s in Irvine, California as the only Asian-American kid at her school. As a result she was occasionally bullied for the color of her skin and the shape of her eyes.
During her senior year, Marisa was a dance major at a performing arts school.
“None of my classmates chose me to be part of their work for the end-of-the-year Student Choreography Showcase” she said.
Marisa stood alone in tears in front of the casting notice that was pinned on the department bulletin board.
“I then realized that there were 10 other dancers in the lower grades who were also excluded.”
She wiped away her tears, took out a pen and added the ten dancers as cast members for her her own production.
“This was my first act of inclusion!” she recalled.
Japan was the story of who she was and a collection of what she loved.
Thus, after high school Marisa moved to Tokyo to study ballet and contemporary dance at Keio University – the “Harvard of Japan.”
“I moved to Japan thinking that I would finally fit in among people that were the same color as me, but that was not the case!“
She looked Japanese, spoke Japanese but as she has said, “American on the inside.”
Her future as a professional contemporary dancer was promising. However, during a contemporary dance class, she began feeling tingling in her left elbow and collapsed to the floor. She lost all movement in her limbs and sensation below the neck.
Marisa was rushed to hospital. The following day she was diagnosed with the rare condition Spinal Cord Infarction — also known as “spinal stroke.”
Her doctor told her that a full recovery would be unlikely. If she did recover the disease could return.
Bedridden, Marisa visualized herself at the ballet barre performing small movements with her legs. She recovered faster than anyone expected. Within two months she walked out of the hospital.
Despite being able to walk again, she developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and could not take herself to the dance studio for a few years. She feared that the disease would return.
Dancing was her love from a young age and she was not prepared to give that up. She believed that “once a dancer, always a dancer.”
Her body was capable of dancing but her mind was not letting her.
One of the methods that sports medicine uses in helping people overcome the anxiety of returning to dance is by modifying the activity.
If a person wants to return to dance after an injury it is best to be done gradually within a year. The reason being — after a year the likelihood of returning decreases.
Being able to move is not only a matter of having a healthy body but a healthy mind as well.
Returning to dance requires building back up that confident inner monologue.
A few years after the health complication Marisa discovered ballroom, salsa, tango, and swing dancing by her own accord.
“It brought a new vibration of joy and inspiration into my life of isolation and fear” she said.
Partnered dancing helped her heal from the emotional trauma she experienced. The dance styles she discovered allowed her to form new friendships whilst expressing her creativity.
A 2015 study published in the International Journal for Research, Policy and Practice had shown strong evidence for salsa dancing as being an effective activity in decreasing the symptoms of PTSD.
What makes ballroom and Latin dancing so effective is that it encompasses the human needs for safety, belonging and self-esteem.
These styles of dancing work on a similar premise as a handshake.
When you shake a person’s hand that causes the release of oxytocin, a chemical produced naturally in the brain. The role of oxytocin is to regulate stress and allow people to connect with one another at an emotional level.
When you shake a person’s hand with both of your hands, that further amplifies the release of oxytocin in both people.
In partnered dancing, the upper limbs are in contact. Thus the increased contact surface area of the upper limbs causes a greater release of oxytocin and therefore a greater regulation of uncomfortable emotions.
One of the greatest ways for a person to heal emotionally is to help others who are experiencing difficulties in their own lives.
That is exactly what Marisa did as well.
She did some research into the different demographics within ballroom dancing and discovered that wheelchair ballroom dancing was underdeveloped.
It was only in 2008 in which the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and the World Dancesport Federation (WDSF) began further developing and promoting the sport internationally.
Her intuition told her that it was her destiny to fill in the gaps within the wheelchair dance community.
Thus, in 2015 Marisa founded America’s first professional wheelchair and able-bodied professional dance company — Infinite Flow. Marisa reached out to her first dance partner Adelfo Cerame Jr., a former firefighter who became a paraplegic after a car accident, to help start the dance company.
She wanted to to create the “Alvin Ailey of inclusive dance.”
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater are a predominately African-American modern dance company known for changing people’s perceptions of race in New York City and throughout the U.S.
Marisa’s pro dance troupe have performed more than 60 times and have taught more than 150 inclusive dance classes and workshops.
The work she has done has not gone unnoticed. Marisa was awarded “Newcomer of the Year” as part of the San Fernando Valley Business Journal Women In Business Awards.
2017 was a a big year for Infinite Flow.
They garnered attention from global brands such as Red Bull, Facebook, Apple and Ovation TV to help spread the message of dance as a vehicle to empower and eliminate the stigma associated with disability.
During the summer of 2017, Red Bull chose Marisa amongst hundreds of others as 1 of 15 applicants to be part of the first Red Bull Amaphiko U.S. Academy. The opportunity provided a launch pad for social entrepreneurs to make a difference in their community.
Infinite Flow also worked with Facebook to produce a 3-minute documentary for the “Community Voices from Facebook” page. The page features stories of that represent people who have leveraged the social media platform to build community in positive and impactful ways.
At the start of 2018, Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, expressed her admiration of Infinite Flow. She shared a documentary video of the dance company’s story to her 2 million Facebook fans.
As Infinite Flow gained popularity at an international level, Marisa began receiving messages from people in other countries to run inclusive dance programs too. Since 2015 Marisa volunteered 30-60 hours per week to build Infinite Flow to what it is today.
In 2018 Infinite Flow will be producing two live interactive dance events. There will be various guest appearances and festivals throughout the U.S.
They will be collaborating with Facebook again as part of the 2018 “VR for Good Initiative.” Infinite Flow and and ten other causes will be paired with up -and-coming filmmakers to create VR experiences for social change.
Infinite Flow intend on creating more events that bring community together and further foster social inclusion.
We can’t change the cards we have been dealt in life, but we can use what we already have to live meaningful, purposeful and impactful lives. Your success is not about how far you go in life but how many people you took with you. What I absolutely love about Marisa’s journey was that she was not only focused on her own success but also those of other people.
As Derek Hough, professional dancer, once said, “The superior human being will always see the light in someone and choose to encourage that light instead of dimming it.”
All proceeds go towards providing quality inclusive dance instruction.
Donations can be made here.
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