Asian-American dancer Marisa Hamamoto, who founded dance company for disabled and able-bodied, talks about her pain and why she's dismantling stereotypes

Marisa Hamamoto founded a dance company for anyone, disabled or able-bodied, six years ago. She is pictured with Piotr Iwanicki, a member of the company, Infinite Flow. Photo: Infinite Flow

Marisa Hamamoto wants to make sure that anyone, regardless of physical ability, feels like they can join a dance class or take part in discussions about race, gender and diversity.

Hamamoto knows she has a long way to go to accomplish these goals – but the Japanese-American (earlier this year named one of People magazine’s Women Changing the World) is not one to shy away from a challenge.

Her determination has been something that has previously helped her overcome her own trauma. At the age of 19, Hamamoto was sexually assaulted. Not long after that, she suffered a spinal stroke.

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“The stroke triggered years of trauma from racism, body shaming, rejection as a ballet dancer and sexual assault from a dance teacher who did not believe in me,” says the dancer, entrepreneur and social activist in the US state of California, who began dancing when she was six.

© Provided by South China Morning Post Hamamoto wants to make sure that anyone, regardless of physical ability, feels like they can join a dance class. Photo: Infinite Flow

“In 2010, I returned to dancing after discovering ballroom dancing. In 2012, I moved to Los Angeles for a fresh start on my dance career – but I found myself not fitting the ‘Hollywood dancer’ box.”

Hamamoto’s father was a third-generation Japanese-American from Hawaii. He met and married her Japanese mother, who gave birth to Hamamoto near Nagoya in Japan. When she was two, the family moved to California.

© Provided by South China Morning Post Hamamoto began dancing when she was six. Photo: Infinite Flow

Hamamoto, bilingual and bicultural, has had to deal with discrimination and rejection for as long as she can remember. She was told she didn’t have the right body type to be a ballet dancer, she was teased for being Asian by the students at her US school and then made to feel she wasn’t Asian enough at college in Japan.

Hamamoto’s sense of inadequacy, of “not being enough”, was especially pronounced when she was sexually assaulted by a dance teacher. “I was violated, and my body felt like it didn’t belong in this world,” she says. “There was a deep-rooted pain everywhere.”

In 2006, she suffered a stroke that left her paralysed from the neck down – yet after two months in hospital, she was able to walk out on her own.

© Provided by South China Morning Post In 2015 Hamamoto created Infinite Flow, a professional dance company open to people of all abilities and ages. Photo: Infinite Flow

“I don’t know how I recovered,” she says. “But it allowed me to develop a strong sense of faith. Within the pain and struggle, I kept believing in the journey – that I am destined to be a dancer, and I am born to dance. A higher power was telling me that I was going to be doing something bigger and broader with dance.”

After some research, Hamamoto discovered that one in four people have a disability in the US, but that opportunities for dancing in the disabled community were few and far between.

In 2015, she created Infinite Flow, a professional dance company open to people of all abilities and ages. The dancers perform at private events, schools and corporate retreats. The performances are moving, celebratory and triumphant, exemplifying how wheelchair users are as graceful, spirited and precise as anyone else.

© Provided by South China Morning Post Hamamoto was told she did not have the right body type to become a ballet dancer. Photo: Infinite Flow
© Provided by South China Morning Post The dancers perform at private events, schools and corporate retreats. Photo: Infinite Flow

“For us, it became a way to use dance as a catalyst to promote inclusion,” she says. “The commentary I was getting was, ‘Marisa, the stroke survivor who temporarily couldn’t walk, is now teaching dance’. But for me, it was destiny.”

She made a film, Scoops of Inclusion, featuring multiracial dancers who encounter a paraplegic gym teacher, a blind school newspaper editor and a deaf music teacher.

“It’s available to schools, families, anyone who wants to watch it,” says Hamamoto. “If there’s one thing I’m really proud of, it’s this film.”

© Provided by South China Morning Post Children taking part in an Infinite Flow dance session, set up by Hamamoto. Photo: Infinite Flow
© Provided by South China Morning Post Many parents do not want to expose their kids to the idea of disability. Photo: Infinite Flow

The film has an “intersectional” approach to disability, she adds – an understanding of how parts of a person’s identity combine to create different aspects of discrimination and privilege – and it talks about race and gender in an open way.

“My dance company is ultra diverse, and I wanted to take the same approach here. So it asks the question: ‘What do you think when you hear the word ‘disability?’. By July next year, I hope for 31 million junior school children in the US to have seen it.”

Many parents, she says, do not want to expose their kids to the idea of disability.

© Provided by South China Morning Post The performances show that wheelchair users can be as graceful, spirited and precise as someone who isn’t in one. Photo: Infinite Flow
© Provided by South China Morning Post Hamamoto (in red) after a performance in front of schoolchildren. Photo: Infinite Flow

“I’m super optimistic, and I tend to think everyone is just going to get it,” she says. “Society likes to put the pity story on disabled people. With Infinite Flow, I want to bring awareness so people can be proud of their own uniqueness, where we’re not just checking off boxes but looking at their stories and identities.

“I’m here to dismantle the boxes people try and put you in. Everyone should be valued for who they are.”

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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