By RYOKO NAKAMURA, Rafu Japanese Staff Writer
“You are suffering from spinal cord infarction. You may never be able to walk again.”
Marisa Hamamoto, an aspiring dancer, broke down in tears as she heard the diagnosis from the neurologist. But even bedridden, her strong wish to continue to dance made a miracle happen.
She is now fully recovered and has been back on the dance floor as a professional ballroom dancer. To share the power of dance with individuals of all abilities, Hamamoto founded America’s first professional wheelchair ballroom company, Infinite Flow.
Born in Aichi Prefecture and raised in Orange County, she knew that she had a dancer’s spirit in her at young age. When she first saw an outstanding performance by the New York City Ballet at the age 12, she decided to pursue a career as a professional ballet dancer.
At age 16, she studied at the prestigious Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C., then graduated from the Idyllwild Arts Academy, a nationally acclaimed performing arts high school in the San Jacinto Mountains. After graduation, she danced at a small ballet company in North Dakota and then trained with a top ballet coach on the East Coast. But countless failed auditions and a severe back injury made her give up her dancing career.
Born to Be a Dancer
After Hamamoto enrolled in Keio University in Tokyo, not a single day passed without thinking about dance. All of her college papers and school projects had dance-related themes, and every time she saw a dance performance flier posted on a wall or a ballet studio in town, she was reminded not to give up her dream to become a professional dancer.
As a dancer, she performed in the opera “Electra,” conducted by the legendary Seiji Ozawa, and worked closely with critically acclaimed Japanese contemporary choreographers Motoko Hirayama and Kota Yamazaki. As a Yonsei, she learned about Japan and Japanese culture through dancing.
Dancing enriched her daily life in Japan. She truly felt that she was born to be a dancer. But on July 26, 2006, everything changed.
When she was dancing at a studio, Hamamoto felt a tingling in her left elbow and suddenly collapsed onto the floor. Completely paralyzed from the neck down, she was unable to move her arms and legs and lost sensation throughout her entire body.
She was diagnosed with a rare disorder called spinal cord infarction, caused by the closing of the major arteries to the spinal cord.
“There is no cure, and you may never be able to walk again,” she was told by her doctor. However, more than the possibility of not being able to walk again, Hamamoto agonized over the thought of not being able to dance and losing her form of self-expression.
Even while bedridden, Hamamoto continually pictured herself dancing in her mind. Though she could not move physically, she repeated the intricate moves she had learned in ballet and reminded her brain of her body dancing.
“Even if I cannot walk again, I will find a way to dance, even if it were from a wheelchair,” she told herself. For Hamamoto, life didn’t exist without dance.
After going through intense physical therapy, occupational therapy, and image training, Hamamoto miraculously recovered in a way that none of her doctors would have ever imagined, and started walking again in just a month.
Although she was excited about her physical recovery, she suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder, fearing that relapse could occur anytime. She forced herself to stay away from dancing again.
After earning an MA on a merit scholarship from Keio, she came across salsa dancing at a party that she attended with her friend. Inspired by many male and female guests of various ages having a blast dancing salsa, Hamamoto thought to herself, “This may be my dance.” The dancing spirit within her woke up once again.
As an experienced ballet and contemporary dancer who was accustomed to dancing solo, building trust and artistic expression with a dance partner was an eye-opening experience. After becoming a certified ballroom dance instructor and accruing enough experience in Japan, she returned to the U.S.
While she was actively working as a dancer, choreographer, instructor, and actress in Los Angeles, Hamamoto was drawn to the ABC show “Dancing With the Stars.” She was touched and inspired by the personal stories of professional dancers and celebrity dancers, who had all faced many obstacles in life, yet had overcome hardships and expressed their emotions through dancing.
Listening to their stories, she realized that her own story, from paralysis to professional, could offer encouragement and inspiration to others, too. Since she had shared her struggles with only close friends, it wasn’t easy to open up at first, but as soon as she had the courage, she received positive responses from listeners.
The more she talked about her ordeal, the more a nagging question arose: “I am blessed to be able to walk and have dance back in my life now, but what about those who still live with paralysis today? Don’t they deserve to experience the magic of dance as well?”
Last January, she founded Infinite Flow.
Wheelchair ballroom dancing, also known as wheelchair dancesport, is a partner dance between a wheelchair user and an able-bodied dancer. The style first started in Sweden and has flourished in Europe and Asia, including Japan, but it remains relatively unknown in the U.S.
Hamamoto, along with her dance partner, Brian Fortuna, a former pro dancer for “Dancing With the Stars” and BBC’s “Strictly Come Dancing”; Adelfo Cerame Jr., a professional wheelchair body builder; and Mia Schaikewitz, star of the Sundance TV reality series “Push Girls,” are founding members of Infinite Flow.
Coincidentally, Fortuna’s mother, Sandra, authored the world’s first wheelchair ballroom dance syllabus in 2004.
Infinite Flow recently became a non-profit 501(c)3 corporation, and will feature local workshops, teacher trainings, and performances.
“It’s my destiny to share the power and magic of dance to individuals of all abilities,” Hamamoto said. “Everyone deserves to dance, and everyone can dance.”
She hopes to help break the barriers between those with and without disabilities through wheelchair dancing.
For more info about Hamamoto and Infinite Flow, visit www.MarisaHamamoto.com.