Marisa Hamamoto Is Shattering Stereotypes About Dancers: 'We're Changing the Narrative Around Disability'

One of PEOPLE's Women Changing the World in 2021, Marisa Hamamoto founded inclusive dance company Infinite Flow in 2015

Two months after suffering a rare form of stroke in 2006 that left her paralyzed from the neck down, Marisa Hamamoto walked out of the hospital. But the psychological scars remained.

"I was still paralyzed on the inside," the trained dancer — one of PEOPLE's Women Changing the World in 2021 — says of the years of PTSD she suffered as a result of racism, body-shaming and three sexual assaults. As a Japanese American growing up both in Japan and the United States, Hamamoto constantly "felt like I didn't belong or I wasn't enough," she recalls. "It was no after no, rejection after rejection."

She left the dance world completely for nearly four years. "I was scared to dance," she says, "and scared to be in the presence of people. I had these nightmares of the entire paralysis happening again."

A holiday party featuring salsa dancers reignited her love for dance and led Hamamoto to take up ballroom dancing. That's when, by chance, she discovered the world of wheelchair dance as well.

"I did some research and learned that one in four people have a disability, and the arena of dance and disability is very underdeveloped," she says. "I didn't think it was fair that people with disabilities didn't have equal access."

Through social media, she connected with Adelfo Cerame Jr., a wheelchair bodybuilder, and asked if he'd like to try dancing with her sometime. Hours into their session, "I realized dance doesn't discriminate," Hamamoto says. "My soul was telling me I had to share this with the world."

Months later, in 2015, Hamamoto formed Infinite Flow, a Los Angeles-based dance company that employs dancers with and without disabilities.

"We're changing the narrative around disability and diversity," she says. "We're using dance as a way to dismantle stereotypes."

Though she admits there was a learning curve in the mechanics of the choreography, she says she and her team approach it from an optimistic standpoint. "Instead of thinking something doesn't work, we think, 'How can this work?' " she shares. "There's always a way."

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Infinite Flow has performed for everyone from Fortune 500 CEOs to schoolchildren — whom Hamamoto finds the most impressionable.

"What you're exposed to as a child stays with you your whole life," she explains. "So when you're exposed to inclusion at a younge age, it stays with you. I've seen the impact we have on children and it's encouraged us to expand our youth program."

marisa hamamoto
Courtesy Marisa Hamamoto/Schaun Champion

The experience has helped Hamamoto find her voice, too, standing up to discrimination against her colleagues and herself as an Asian-American, especially amid the past year when attacks against the AAPI community are on the rise.

"I'm on a constant journey of exploration and better learning, better understanding of how I can be a better agent of change," she says. "I know I'm standing up for the right things and doing the right things, but not everyone is always ready to receive that."

Gaining visibility through work, Hamamoto hopes she'll also inspire "women who look like me, who can learn it's possible to align your passions with your purpose and create a career out of it."

She continues, "As a dancer, I'd always been in this constant struggle of feeling I had to fit in a box. I never fit that box. So I built my own."

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