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AHA News: A Lifetime of Challenges -- Including a Spinal Stroke -- Leads Dancer to Infinite Possibilities
  • Posted August 23, 2023

AHA News: A Lifetime of Challenges -- Including a Spinal Stroke -- Leads Dancer to Infinite Possibilities

As a Japanese American girl growing up in Irvine, California, Marisa Hamamoto felt like an outsider in her predominantly white community. Her schoolmates picked on her because she looked different. She wasn't one of them.

But when she entered the dance studio, everything changed.

"I discovered at an early age that dance can unite us," she said. "I was the only girl of color, but moving my body to the music made me feel like I belonged. I was part of a community in dance class."

As she entered her teen years, she dreamed of becoming a professional ballerina. But as her body matured, she faced a new set of challenges. "I didn't quite have the right body for ballet," she said. "I was too curvy. And my joints were too tight. I was not flexible enough. I had to keep fighting to prove that I could dance."

Unwilling to give up, she postponed college and left California, eventually landing in New York City to pursue her dream. Then one day she injured her back in dance class.

Hamamoto shifted her focus to sports medicine. She decided to learn how to heal dancers and, while she was at it, learn more about her heritage. She moved to Japan and enrolled in an interdisciplinary research program at Keio University, where she studied sports biomechanics.

She thought she'd fit in better in Japan, where she looked like everyone else. But though she looked and spoke Japanese, she sounded and acted American. "I still didn't find belonging," Hamamoto said. "The only place I belonged was in dance."

Two things brought her back to her passion: Her studies didn't fill the void as she'd hoped, and her back felt better. She also made an important change, switching from ballet to contemporary dance. In addition to her sports biomechanics classes, she began taking dance classes at night. She even earned a few roles in professional productions. Her hopes for a professional career returned.

But then came an even bigger threat to her career. Late one night, during a physically demanding contemporary dance class in a studio in Tokyo, she suddenly collapsed. She couldn't move. Her classmates carried her downstairs, put her in a taxi and sent her to a hospital.

The doctors thought she had overexerted herself and tried to send her home.

"But the one thing that wasn't paralyzed was my voice," she said. Hamamoto demanded to see another doctor, a neurologist. He ran some tests and told her she had experienced a spinal stroke, a rare but serious condition caused by a blood clot. He also told her she might never walk again.

She wondered, "What is there to life if I can't dance?"

At first, the only thing she could move was her neck. But over the next few weeks, she started to regain sensation. She was able to move her toes, and then her legs. After about a month, she was able to stand with assistance. She began occupational and physical therapy, relearning how to control her body, even simple tasks such as holding a spoon or lifting her elbow.

"As a dancer, I knew there was more than one way to lift a knee," she said, "so I wanted to do more than they asked. I could hear the music playing in my head. I was trying to do things to the music. I made up my own exercises, building off of what they told me to do. Did I go above and beyond? Oh yeah."

Within two months, she was walking. But she was afraid to dance again. Afraid of another stroke. Afraid she would fail.

One day, at a holiday party, a salsa teacher taught everyone some simple dance steps. Hamamoto was stunned at how joyful everyone looked learning the steps.

"The joy of dance just came back into my body," she said. Soon she was back in dance class, exploring the beauty of dancing with a partner.

"You just connect, human to human," she said.

Salsa quickly led to ballroom dance and Hamamoto moved back to California to pursue a career as a ballroom dancer and teacher. One day, someone came into the studio looking for people to teach students with Parkinson's disease, a brain disorder that causes uncontrolled movements and difficulty with balance. She volunteered, of course. "And that was when I realized the true power of dance in healing."

People with Parkinson's cannot fully control their bodies, she said. "But you turn on the music and there isn't much difference between them and my other students. I was just blown away."

The experience inspired her to see how dance might help people with other disabilities. Remembering her own experience with paralysis, she wondered if even wheelchair users might benefit. She started searching online for potential partners willing to try. That's when she came across Adelfo Cerame, a wheelchair bodybuilder living in Orange County.

Cerame, who was paralyzed in a car accident in 2005, had never tried dancing "but she caught me when I was open to new things," he said. It was 10 years after his accident, and "I was at a phase in my life where I was comfortable in my own skin. I was embracing my situation."

The two began experimenting with how someone using a wheelchair could dance with someone who was not. "Initially it was just practicing and experimenting," he said. Eventually, they performed in front of an audience at Hamamoto's student events. "Then places started to hire us, and it just turned into a thing where we were performing professionally," he said.

And that led to the creation of Infinite Flow Dance, Hamamoto's nonprofit and professional dance company that hires dancers with and without disabilities. Performing at school assemblies and corporate events, Infinite Flow uses dance to foster inclusion.

After years of fighting to be a dancer but feeling as if she never fit in, Hamamoto said she has finally found a way to do both. The dance company provides opportunities for others to do the same.

"I finally found my voice as a dancer and my purpose as an artist," she said. "Infinite Flow demonstrates the infinite possibilities."

American Heart Association News covers heart and brain health. Not all views expressed in this story reflect the official position of the American Heart Association. Copyright is owned or held by the American Heart Association, Inc., and all rights are reserved.

By Laura Williamson, American Heart Association News

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