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Episode 23: We are all Vehicles of Expression – A Conversation with Inclusion Activist, Marisa Hamamoto

marisa hamamoto

Marisa Hamamoto is an activist, dance artist, and speaker looking to empower people through dance and storytelling to disable bias, encourage others to get out of their comfort zone, build new connections, and create breakthrough innovations. After 20 years of dancing ballet and contemporary dance in both the US and Japan, Marisa discovered and fell in love with ballroom dancing while recovering from spinal cord infarction, a rare stroke which caused her to be temporarily paralyzed from the neck down. In 2015, Marisa founded Infinite Flow, An Inclusive Dance Company, leading a global movement to make dance accessible to all and use dance to inspire inclusivity.

She has brought Infinite Flow’s professional dancers with and without disabilities to perform at over 100 events, from school assemblies to corporate events with Apple, Red Bull, Porsche, Kaiser Permanente, and others. Infinite Flow’s videos have been viewed by over 50 Million people and she has been featured in over 100 media outlets including NBC Today, Good Morning America, Refinery 29, and others.

Hosts Jeff and Erik spoke with Marisa about her trajectory from a dancer to finding her voice and her own company, Infinite Flow.

After 20 years of dancing ballet and contemporary dance in both the US and Japan, Marisa discovered and fell in love with ballroom dancing while recovering from spinal cord infarction, a rare stroke which caused her to be temporarily paralyzed from the neck down. In 2015, Marisa founded Infinite Flow, An Inclusive Dance Company, leading a global movement to make dance accessible to all and use dance to inspire inclusivity.

She has brought Infinite Flow’s professional dancers with and without disabilities to perform at over 100 events, from school assemblies to corporate events with Apple, Red Bull, Porsche, Kaiser Permanente, and others. Infinite Flow’s videos have been viewed by over 50 Million people and she has been featured in over 100 media outlets including NBC Today, Good Morning America, Refinery 29, and others.

Our team was introduced to Marisa when she came to a No Barriers Summit in 2017 and performed onstage with her then dance partner, Adelfo. They made such an impression on the crowd that we invited them back to perform at the NYC Summit in 2018.

Together, Jeff, Erik, and Marisa explore how her own brush with disability informed her mission and how the adversity she experienced in her life has motivated her to find the dancer in everyone she meets.

Check out Infinite Flow

Join us in San Francisco for our 2020 No Barriers Summit. Follow Marisa on social channels: @infiniteflowdance #infiniteinclusion

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——- EPISODE TRANSCRIPT ———

Marisa Hamamoto: You know, my goal here as always, instead of being called a disabled dance company or an inclusive dance company, let’s just say that this is good dance, period.

I think I went out of my way, even though I had no money, no nothing, to kind of get this company started. I decided to figure out a way to do it, because I strongly believed in that bigger mission.

Erik W.: It’s easy to talk about the successes. But what doesn’t get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I’ve gotten a chance to ascend Mount Everest, climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I happen to be blind. It’s been a struggle to live what I call a no-barriers life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. In that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in and the summit exists a map. That map, that way forward, is what we call No Barriers.

Today we meet Marisa Hamamoto, an activist, dance artist, and speaker. After 20 years of dancing ballet and contemporary dance in both the US and Japan, Marisa discovered and fell in love with ballroom dancing while recovering from spinal cord infarction, a rare stroke which caused her to be temporarily paralyzed from the neck down. In 2015, Marisa founded Infinite Flow, an inclusive dance company leading a global movement to make dance accessible to all and use dance to inspire inclusivity. Infinite Flow’s videos have been viewed by over 50 million people, and she has been featured on news outlets such as NBC Today and Good Morning America.

Jeff: Marisa, we just had a guest on earlier, you may know her, actually. She was at the summit last year, her name’s Jamie Petrone. Have you met her before? She does disability and does some sort of full inclusion dance and stuff. And so we had her on earlier, and we were talking to her about dance. So we won’t repeat it on this podcast, because it’ll be repetitive, but I just tried to make the world very aware of how poor of a dancer Erik is. In spite of all his [crosstalk 00:02:48]. I’m telling you this because you need to know, if you don’t already, but that I’ve already gone through this story line on the last one. But I wanted you to be up to speed.

Marisa Hamamoto: Well, Erik, maybe we can have you perform some dancing with me, I don’t know, maybe next year or something at the summit.

Erik W.: Well, here’s the thing. I have incredibly awkward disease, and …

Marisa Hamamoto: Okay.

Erik W.: That comes with the territory of being blind, honestly. Because you can’t see somebody dance. You can’t see somebody who is moving in this beautiful way. And I think that’s a huge part of learning. It was a challenge for me to learn to ski, for instance, because I couldn’t watch a beautiful skier come down the mountain. These ski instructors would say “Oh, you’re a blind skier, you’ll always look like a blind skier.” That pissed me off so bad, because I didn’t want to look like a blind skier. I wanted to look like a beautiful, sighted skier with flow. And same thing with dance, you know what I mean? If you can’t see, it is a pretty big deficit, I will say. Not to throw out all my excuses in the beginning of a No Barriers podcast, but that’s a major barrier to learning how to dance when you’re blind, because you’re just so awkward and self-conscious. Like am I standing out like a sore thumb?

Jeff: That’s a lot to say about that. Marisa, what do you think?

Marisa Hamamoto: I really think that we have tapped into an area that we should explore further, because No Barriers is all about what? Taking the barriers off of your mind, including. So Erik, I think we’re gonna have to …

Erik W.: Have I stepped into something?

Jeff: No. I mean, you asked for it.

Erik W.: I’m ready.

Jeff: Actually you’re right, Marisa, this is a good jump-off point, ’cause if I’m right, correct me if I’m wrong, but what you do with Infinite Flow is all about expression, right? It’s about shelving anybody else’s judgment and not allowing the external optic to alter how you express yourself and who you are. So even in spite of Erik’s lack of rhythm and lack of moves, and I could keep listing them out, but he still is subscribing to that same sort of approach that I think you teach.

Marisa Hamamoto: Yes, absolutely. I come from [crosstalk 00:05:15].

Erik W.: I’m not even defending myself, by the way.

Marisa Hamamoto: I mean, I come from the belief that every single person has a dancer inside of them. So whether they believe in it or not, guess what, we are all meant … We all have a dancer inside of us. It’s just a matter of finding it. You don’t have to like to dance. And what is dance anyway? What you see me do is one type of dance, but who is to even define what dance is? ‘Cause there’s so many different dance styles, and dance kind of historically too, dance was a way of celebrating different religions or different traditions. But as human beings, we are all meant to … I believe we were meant to be brought onto this earth to be a vehicle of expression in many different ways. And my belief is, is that we are all vehicles of expression, and one way that we can express ourselves is through dance. One way that we can communicate with each other is through dance. And the definition of dance is whatever you want to make out of it.

So we might be dancing right now as we podcast here. So that’s my core belief. But I also think that dance is a very … it’s symbolic of so many different things, whether it’s freedom or creativity, and whether it’s internal. I think dance is a good representation of self-expression, but also a great representation of just expression from a visual place as well.

Erik W.: So if it’s about expression, it also sounds like it’s about inclusion and belonging. So how do you leap from an art form that expresses to an art form that somehow creates inclusion and belonging in the world?

Marisa Hamamoto: Just to take a step back on kind of going into a little bit about me, so I’m the founder of Infinite Flow, an inclusive dance company. It’s been about four years since I created this dance company, and the reason why I created a dance company where the dance troupe itself has dancers with and without disabilities, and our mission is to use dance to inspire inclusivity and-

Erik W.: Before that, you had a stroke and you couldn’t move. You had a spinal stroke, right? You couldn’t move, you recovered, but still, you got a taste of pretty severe disability, right? I heard you couldn’t move from your neck down.

Marisa Hamamoto: That is correct. I lost mobility from my neck down as well as, I became completely numb. Couldn’t feel my body either. It was very scary. And it was kind of one of those rare instances, even from a medical standpoint, where there’s not really many people that get a spinal stroke. Strokes happen most of the time in the brain. So for a stroke to happen in the spinal cord, even the doctors were very confused as well as lost as to what to do with me. But circling back to inclusion, one of my first encounters with dance and disability was, I just knew in my heart that there was a lack of access to dance for people with disabilities, and something told me that I was destined to solve that problem. But I didn’t know anyone with a disability at this time. And this is literally just four years ago.

So what I did was, being a ballroom dancer, I said “You know what, let me just go and find a wheelchair dance partner.” I went onto social media, couldn’t really find anyone. But I kept on searching, and I ended up finding a wheelchair athlete named [Adolfo 00:09:03], who was at the No Barriers summit two years ago.

Jeff: Yeah, you guys were incredible.

Marisa Hamamoto: Thank you.

Jeff: Yeah.

Marisa Hamamoto: And he had zero dance background. He was a paraplegic wheelchair body builder, zero background in dance formally. But then after a couple hours of dancing with him, there was this magical moment where his wheelchair just disappeared, and it was no longer Adolfo the wheelchair user, but just Adolfo.

Erik W.: So wait, did you just call him up, or you contact him on Facebook and you say “Hey, Adolfo, let’s see if we can dance together,” and he said sure?

Marisa Hamamoto: Yes. That’s exactly how it happened. I found his profile on Facebook and messaged him randomly. And then he replied like within a couple hours. It was like going “Oh, wow, that was easy to contact him.” And then we literally got on the phone like 24 hours later and was in the studio another couple days later.

Erik W.: And I’ve heard basically he’s ripped and he’s really strong. He lifts you in the air and stuff, I’d have people describe it to me.

Marisa Hamamoto: Yes, that’s right. That’s right, it’s a lot more complicated than it looks, even though he’s got an eight-pack and has these massive arms. He doesn’t have any mobility or strength from the belly button below, so even with the lifts, it looks very easy, but it’s crafted really strategically to make those things happen. But going back to my story …

Erik W.: Yeah, ’cause we’re gonna get into inclusion. You’re gonna get into inclusion and all of that. But so I just gotta interrupt, because I’m so curious.

Marisa Hamamoto: No problem.

Erik W.: So how the heck mechanically, then, does he lift you up? If he has no abs, and his wheelchair might skitter out from under him? That’s amazing.

Marisa Hamamoto: Exactly. So if you look really closely, actually, I should describe this. If you can … This is hard to put yourself in his position, because obviously all three of us here have full mobility in our abs, I’m guessing, here. But any movement that goes forward and back, he’s not able to really do if there’s weight. So just imagine if you’re sitting down right now, if you lean forward onto your knees, he’s not able to do that. But side to side movement, as long as one arm stabilizes himself on the chair, he’s able to lift with the other arm. So in this lift, what he does is he stabilizes his left arm onto his chair, so the left arm is kind of like the lever in a way. On the right arm is where he lifts me up. And so he’s basically using a lateral side-to-side motion, not a forward and back motion, to lift me up.

Jeff: you just had to improvise, right, and just figure it out together over time? How long did it take you to figure that out? Was that just an instantaneous improvisation, where you guys said “Look, I can’t go forward and back, so everything we have to do going forward has to be laterally”? Was that instant, or did that take hours and hours of being together?

Erik W.: And how much blood was spilled in the process?

Marisa Hamamoto: No blood. No blood. Now …

Jeff: Probably some falls, though.

Marisa Hamamoto: We both have, well, I have pretty long, black hair, and so I have, whenever I’ve been upside down where my hair touches the ground, I’ve lost some hair where his wheelchair has rolled over my hair.

Jeff: Oh.

Marisa Hamamoto: So I’ve lost … no blood, but I’ve lost hair. But to answer your question of how long did this take, it’s been a constant exploration. We didn’t even explore lifts until a few months into what we were doing. And we just try different things. We occasionally brought someone in that was more experienced at lifts than me, but again, most other dance professionals and colleagues that I’ve brought in, they do not have any experience teaching people with disabilities, period. So ultimately it’s been more … it’s been kind of a collaborative research process to make things work. And what I’ve learned from this whole process of research is that the human body is capable of doing many things, and through a little bit of creativity, even if you can’t do one thing, you can always do another.

And sometimes you come up with things that only someone with that particular unique body can do. The process of figuring out how to do things, though at first it might seem impossible, has been incredibly rewarding. And I think as a dance educator, my concept is, let’s use everything you’ve got and also innovate and invent the new.

Erik W.: So how do you do that? Do you say “Hey, I want to try a lift, and let’s see if we can figure it out,” or do you just let things happen organically? Like I know you went to a really famous, prestigious dance school and so forth. So you have like a tool kit, but as you said, dancing with somebody in a wheelchair is so different. But is that the starting place, at least?

Marisa Hamamoto: So yes. I think I am blessed with having had a lot of formal dance training. And it’s been pretty hard-core disciplined dance training from some of the best dance teachers and dance schools in the world. So I am definitely privileged and blessed to have that as a background. However, instead of using the word adapt, we like to use the word translate, meaning that each person has a unique body, and we each have to translate movement into our own unique body, whatever that might be. So whether you have one leg, two legs, able to stand, not able to stand, blind, deaf, with one arm, whatever the situation is, we all have to translate movement into our own unique bodies. Even two able-bodied dancers, they have different bodies. So at the end, we are translating movement into our own unique bodies, and it’s just a matter of …

I think the most important thing is that mutually, from both the coaching end as well as on the dance end, dancer end, that your attitude is about “Okay, we’re gonna figure this out,” whatever it is that we’re trying to figure it out. But as long as both sides knows that we are going to figure this out together, usually we are able to figure out something together. And sometimes what we figure out is sometimes different from what we initially set forth, but turns out to be better. So it’s a constant exploration of what we can do.

Some of the elements that do remain the same is the technical quality, the artistic quality, the quality of the work. Whether we perform for adults, kids, it really doesn’t matter. We try to keep it as high as possible, so that doesn’t change. But music choice, relatability to the audience is pretty big.

Erik W.: So there’s this thing I’ve noticed in some of the people that we’ve interviewed and some of the people that are ambassadors in the No Barriers community, where through that struggle of adaptation, or what did you call it instead of adaptation?

Marisa Hamamoto: Translation.

Erik W.: Translation. Through that process there’s some struggle, right? And they create something new, they go to a new place. So I bet you’ve experienced that, right? Where you invent something new in the process of sort of stumbling through this exercise?

Marisa Hamamoto: Yes. I love putting two people that are completely different than each other together and seeing what happens. And that’s kind of like my message on inclusion too, in which by connecting with people that you usually don’t connect with, purposely connecting may turn into another … may turn into a whole movement, like myself, like what I did. I think a lot of the discovery, though, Erik, is, as much as what we are doing as Infinite Flow, an inclusive dance company may seem different from the rest of the dance world, I feel like it’s not at all. I feel like … Let me take this one step back. So we are a professional dance company. We’re not yet a full-time dance company, but my standards are pretty high when it comes to my dancers. And it’s hard work. We’re not in the studio just playing around. It’s a lot of discipline and hard work, and especially because I don’t have a full-time … nobody’s full time, everyone’s got day jobs and trying to make life happen.

Amidst all this dancing we really have to focus and stay disciplined in our craft. And so even though on stage everything looks shiny and pretty, there’s been a lot of work and discipline that’s been put in there. And there’s no difference between another “able-bodied” dance company and Infinite Flow. It’s like the same process. So what I’m noticing more and more as I get deeper into … or as I run Infinite Flow, it’s nothing different. It really is not. But the world sees it as something different, the dance world sees it as something different. My goal here, as always, instead of being called a disabled dance company or an inclusive dance company, let’s just say that this is good dance, period, regardless of what it is.

Jeff: It’s the same thing that happened with you and Adolfo, right? When you were dancing with Adolfo and the chair disappeared. Sounds like that’s your testament, is to try and get to the point where all the chairs just disappear. And you’re another dance group that commits yourself to the process, right?

Marisa Hamamoto: Exactly, exactly.

Jeff: Hey, I want to ask you, I’m always fascinated by fuel and catalysts that push us in certain directions. And I’ve looked at some of the pictures of you as a kid, ridiculously adorable, by the way, in your pink dance outfits.

Marisa Hamamoto: I know.

Jeff: [crosstalk 00:20:06].

Marisa Hamamoto: The only Asian girl in this class, it’s interesting.

Jeff: Well, first of all, let’s not miss that, that that was a bit formative for you, being one of the only Asian-Americans at your school, if not the only one, right? And so in a way, that was your first sense of … I don’t want to say discrimination, but of feeling like you were different, right?

Marisa Hamamoto: Correct.

Jeff: And then I guess my main question is, I hear you talk about dance, I know you were a dancer as a kid, high level as a young adult. You had this spinal cord infarction happen, and then that gave you a complete twist of perception on dance. And then that was super formative into creating where you are now with Infinite. So tell me about the fuel that was there as a kid, and then how being in a chair yourself not only opened up your eyes to the disparity in the world of having this dynamic, but for you personally and committing your life to it. ‘Cause this is your life, right? You’re all in.

Marisa Hamamoto: So I feel like I grew up always being different. And I think …

Jeff: You mean just ethnically, or anything else?

Marisa Hamamoto: It started off with the color, the ethnicity part, and also I think there’s been many, many times in my life where I felt like I was the only person of color. But also, when I moved to Japan for college and grad school, amongst a population of people that was literally the same color as me, I still was different. And so I think by the time I spent a couple years in Japan, I just realized, I think I’m just always going to be different. And I’m just gonna have to accept that and be okay with that, and be proud of that. And now it’s crazy, ’cause I recently realized that it’s almost habit that I find a way to be different. I don’t like to be the same as the person next to me, and that’s just who I am as a person.

But going back to the fuel of dance, I think there’s multiple reasons why I fell in love with dancing. As a little kid I just really loved moving to music, and then yeah, and being kind of the only girl of color in multiple situations, dance was the one place where I felt like I belonged, even though I was the only girl of color in a given dance class. But I think my true fire came when I decided, when I was 12, that I was gonna pursue dance professionally. And then during middle school, high school really put my 200% into pursuing this professional ballet career, but was just rejected over and over and over again, and being told that I wasn’t talented. Being rejected at auditions, and it was just no after no after no after no. But despite all that, I still continued to believe that dance had a place in my life, and I was meant to be a dancer.

And there was no way that no one was gonna turn around and say “No, you’re not gonna dance.” I was gonna make dance happen in my life no matter what. And I think the more no’s that I got, the more I became passionate about making it happen.

Erik W.: Why do you think you got so many rejections? Why do think, when you’re looking back at that? ‘Cause I know you talked about being different and that being a cool thing, and I agree 100%. But it also sets you up sometimes for bullying and alienation and rejection, like you’re saying.

Marisa Hamamoto: Yeah, I mean, what I was pursuing was a professional ballet career, and ballet is one dance form that’s very cookie-cutter, this is how it’s done, and if you don’t fit that mold, then you don’t belong. That’s just how that world works, whether you agree with it or not, that’s just how it is. So because the form of dance I was pursuing was that, the most intense … the most specific in regards to what is success and what is considered professional, I just didn’t fit it. I just didn’t fit that mold whatsoever, but yet instead of saying “Okay, this is not for me, let’s move on,” I just kept on pushing myself.

And then a couple things that happened that made me go “Okay, I think I do need to remove myself,” one was that during my teens I was raped by a ballet teacher who also rejected me as a dancer. Which put a very big, huge trauma hole in my life just in general. But also, I did get injured, something that I don’t talk about much, was I injured my back when I was 19, around the same time of getting raped. And so kind of going through a sexual assault case and an injury all at the same time, at that time I wasn’t the most spiritual person on earth, but it was also enough to tell me that perhaps I need to remove myself from this world of dance.

Erik W.: Specifically ballet, or all of dance, were you thinking?

Marisa Hamamoto: I did remove myself completely for a moment. I remember literally going, I was in New York, and I literally took my dance shoes, my dance bag, everything, and threw it into the trash can and said “All right, no more, I’m done.”

Jeff: How long after the assault did that event happen? I mean, was it bang, bang?

Marisa Hamamoto: A few months.

Jeff: Were you still reeling from that when you kind of shunned the whole thing?

Marisa Hamamoto: I think it was like, I don’t know, a little bit less than a year since maybe … yeah, six months, I don’t know. Something like eight or nine months, I think.

Jeff: I’m wondering, I’m trying to connect the dots for the fuel, too, that I was speaking of. Was this event that happened to someone, that it was a person of trust for you that had violated you? Was that another source of fuel for you?

Marisa Hamamoto: Yes, that is exactly what happened. The last person that I thought would do this did this. But again, even though this happened, I was still fighting to dance. I was still like “I’m gonna get through this and figure it out.”

Erik W.: But right after that trauma, you’re in survivor mode. You talked about being paralyzed on the inside.

Marisa Hamamoto: Yes, yes.

Jeff: Outside and inside, you were paralyzed throughout every aspect of your life, right?

Erik W.: What’s worse, being physically hurt or emotionally, spiritually destroyed? Or are they the same when it comes down to it?

Marisa Hamamoto: I think they’re very connected with each other. In my case, the stroke happened a few years after the sexual assault. Miraculously, I did regain much of my mobility very quickly, yet after I regained my mobility, I was still traumatized and still paralyzed on the inside. And more traumatized than ever from the assault, actually, after the stroke. And at that time I was in Japan, there was no really talk about mental illness. I feel like this concept of mental illness has really become more mainstream, to actually have conversations around it in the last couple years. But at that time I really dealt with my trauma on my own. And it was painful. I look back on it now, I definitely had a mental illness, I definitely went through depression, I definitely went through PTSD. I definitely went through some craziness that I could not understand nor have anyone to really talk with about.

But it was just about a year and a half ago that, through a retreat as a fellow for Red Bull’s social impact arm, that after eight days of hearing a lot of stories from a lot of amazing, successful people, and these are authentic stories, on day nine when it was my turn to actually speak about something, I revealed the sexual assault for the first time in my life. And it terrified the shit out of me, to tell you the truth, when I first revealed it. But now I’m pretty comfortable talking about it, because I have done my healing work over the last year and a half. And it’s been up and down, it’s been up and down. But I’ve been able to forgive this person during the last half a year.

Jeff: Speaking out is a big part, right? Talking out loud in front of groups?

Marisa Hamamoto: Yes.

Jeff: And also, I read that changing over to ballroom dancing was very healing for you. Are those the therapies?

Marisa Hamamoto: Yes. When I rediscovered dance, it was through ballroom dancing, and part of why I became so addicted to it was that, imagine for a moment, having had the sexual assault, a few years later going through a stroke, still traumatized after living in a lot of physical and emotional trauma. And then suddenly put inside of ballroom dancing, where you are forced to connect physically with someone that you don’t know. And at first it was really out of my comfort zone. It was traumatizing just to get into dance class first of all, but to even be in contact with someone, it was a whole other level.

Jeff: [crosstalk 00:30:34] intimacy perspective, because you’re sharing this experience right close up with them?

Marisa Hamamoto: Yes. Yes, I mean, these are people that I’ve never even talked to about, but the fact that you are holding hands, in contact physically, and … I mean, again, at that time there was a part of me that just didn’t trust people, period. But crazy enough, somehow getting out of my comfort zone and going through ballroom dance from a technical standpoint, it was amazing. It was amazing, it was like as if that fear and the trauma that I was holding onto really started to melt away, one day at a time. And that was when I discovered “Oh, getting out of your comfort zone and really tapping into a place that you feel really insecure can actually be the key to unlocking something really powerful.”

And that’s why, Erik, I think we need to kind of get yourself out of your comfort zone for the next No Barriers summit, [crosstalk 00:31:47], whatever that is, and have you dance.

Jeff: Oh, yeah.

Erik W.: You’re talking me into it.

Jeff: That’s the great thing about him, he’ll go for it. He’ll go for it.

Erik W.: I’ll go for it, yeah, you’ll see me.

Marisa Hamamoto: Oh, yeah.

Erik W.: I’ll make a fool out of myself, but I’ll love it.

Marisa Hamamoto: Yes, you did it.

Erik W.: So do you find it ironic, you must have thought about how ironic it is that one kind of dance almost broke you, and one kind of dance started healing you. How wild is that?

Marisa Hamamoto: Yeah, that’s a really, really good question that no one’s ever asked me before.

Erik W.: Oh, good, I’m glad. That’s what my job is. Yeah. Yeah, because ballet doesn’t sound like it’s the intimacy, it sounds rigid and it sounds like you’re kind of feeling like isolated a little bit, like you’re out for yourself. And then you do this other kind of dance that really feels, to me at least the way you describe it, way more fulfilling and meaningful, and …

Jeff: Connecting.

Erik W.: Connecting, thank you.

Marisa Hamamoto: Yeah. You know, I fell in love, more than ballroom dancing I fell in love with the concept of partner dancing.

Erik W.: Got it.

Marisa Hamamoto: I just really felt like myself when I actually connected and danced with other people. I realized that I was much better off feeling like myself in a partnership connection over dancing alone. And so the reason why I named Infinite Flow Infinite Flow is that I regard the infinity sign to be two people dancing in harmony and eternity, and … I mean, it is a sign of inclusion, a symbol of inclusion as well. But I really fell in love with this concept of partner dancing, and it was an accident that it also became this symbol of inclusion, where yeah, when you’re dancing with someone, you see beyond race, color, size, age, ability, gender, disability, etc., etc. So yeah. And right now it’s like Infinite Flow does specialize … we kind of cross multiple genres of dance, and again, first and foremost our goal is always to influence, impact the broad public. And so we pick music and dance genres that will fit with whatever it is that we’re trying to achieve in that moment.
But regardless of dance genre, I do incorporate this concept of partner work in everything we do. Even for like traditionally non-partner work dance styles such as hip-hop, we purposely incorporate the partner work into the choreography.

Jeff: Do you think that’s part of that being connected, where your workshops, you’re bringing people together, maybe taking people that are very different and pushing them together, making them step out of their comfort zone and finding cool connections through dance?

Marisa Hamamoto: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. Connections, internal connections, external connections between each other. It’s all an infinity sign. So yeah, I have this affinity for this infinity sign for a while.

Jeff: And you think that promotes somehow beyond dance, right? ‘Cause it sounds like we’re talking about something bigger than dance, using dance as the vehicle to figure out connection and inclusivity and how important it is in the world, right? In your bigger life?

Marisa Hamamoto: Exactly. I’m interested in exploring audio description that goes well with the type of dancing that we do, but our brains process images 60 times faster than words. And so when you see this beautiful image of inclusion, you believe in its potential and power. Now, Erik, I feel really awkward saying this to you because you can’t see, but now that we’re … I would be very interested in exploring, from the audio describer standpoint, how can we replicate that experience through description? And just to kind of go a little bit off track here, I think with Infinite Flow we’ve got the internal experience and then the external experience.

So for a performance, that is, audience looking into the performance, it’s like an external experience of performance. The internal experience is, let’s say you and I dancing, or having a whole community of people dance together, actually having guests and audience participate. That creates this internal experience of connection and inclusion. And both go hand in hand with … I mean, ideally we want everyone to experience both, but regardless of whether they experience both or just one, we want to leave people empowered to feel like they’re empowered to connect with people that they don’t know. We want to empower people to step out of their comfort zone.

Erik W.: so like if we danced together, I internally would feel empowered, but the audience would be embarrassed and awkward, [crosstalk 00:37:08] for me.

Marisa Hamamoto: I don’t think so.

Jeff: I love that we both said embarrassed.

Marisa Hamamoto: I don’t think so. Okay, Mr. No Barrier, let’s remove that barrier from our brain. But Erik, if you think about it, if you can do it, if you overcome this complete insecurity over your own dance skills, or at least attempt to, look how many others that would be inspired to do the same. You’re a leader, you’ve got to step up.

Erik W.: Yeah, yeah, I hear you.

Jeff: There’s a video that’s out there of a live music performance somewhere, I don’t know where, maybe it was in Europe. And everybody’s sitting down in the grass, there’s no movement. The music’s playing, and this one guy, he starts dancing. And the camera just stays on him. And he’s letting it go. I mean, he has zero shits given about who’s watching, he’s just letting the music move him. And then another dude comes over, and it’s two guys.

Marisa Hamamoto: Oh, I know what this is, [crosstalk 00:38:11].

Jeff: You’ve seen it?

Marisa Hamamoto: [Head X 00:38:12] video, right?

Jeff: Okay, maybe, I don’t know where I’ve seen it. But then another guy comes over and then another guy. And then it sort of speeds through, and 20 minutes later there’s 100 people dancing, it all started with the one person who didn’t give a shit what people were saying about him.

Marisa Hamamoto: Exactly.

Jeff: I find that [crosstalk 00:38:30]. ‘Cause you, in a way, are starting your own flash mob. [crosstalk 00:38:38].

Marisa Hamamoto: It’s a … that’s how social movements work. And the No Barriers movement is like that too. It started off with just a couple people, including Erik, and then you guys, and then it kind of grew little by little. And then sooner or later you’ve got this whole tribe and community offline and online of people that want to live this no barrier life in their own ways. And in my case, too, just by meeting one person, not meeting, by connecting with one person named Adolfo, it turned into a non-profit and this whole movement. And it’s still growing, and it’s still … I mean, we’re still a startup, we’re still scrappy and all over the map, but in a good way. It’s starting to become a movement. And I think I has turned into a movement, it’s a matter of, now how do we organize, how do we keep organizing and growing so that we strategically continue to be on the path of our mission?

Jeff: You have a new partner too, right? Isn’t his name Pietor? Pietor?

Marisa Hamamoto: Yes, Peter was with me this last year’s No Barriers summit.

Jeff: Okay, got it. So has he replaced Adolfo?

Marisa Hamamoto: No, no, no, no, absolutely not. Absolutely not. No, they’re both … I still dance with both of them, they’re both part of Infinite Flow. Infinite Flow operates more so as a dance company where we’re not always dancing with the same person all the time. We have consistent partners, so Adolfo and I, we’ve been dancing together regularly. Peter and I have been dancing regularly for the last year and a half. Within the company, too, we have some partnerships that have been consistent, but then I kind of switch things up sometimes too. But Peter is from Poland. He’s a 12-time wheelchair ballroom world champion who was, probably historically, I believe he’s probably the best, one of the best wheelchair dancers ever.

Jeff: Sounds like he’s got the market cornered. 12-time world champion?

Marisa Hamamoto: Yeah.

Erik W.: I bet Adolfo’s jealous, though.

Jeff: Yeah. Sounds like [crosstalk 00:40:50].

Erik W.: I’m just kidding.

Marisa Hamamoto: [crosstalk 00:40:52] different people with very different goals when it comes to dance. Adolfo’s number one passion is body building and fitness, and dance is the supplement and his newfound passion, but it doesn’t replace the body building. Body building will always come first. But again, he brings in his body building knowledge into dancing, and vice versa, he uses a lot of dance movement when he goes into all the posing for his body building competitions. And so they work really well for him.

Adolfo’s very much on a mission to really consistently improve himself, improve his life, break his own barriers. So whatever that it takes to continually grow, and what he calls express his passions, he will do. I regard my bigger vision with Infinite Flow, and actually it’s already kind of happening in a way, is that we are a hub for dancers of all abilities. And especially for dancers with disabilities who are breaking the stereotype and really pushing to be seen, like we want to be the hub for them. And it’s kind of already happening. So I have a couple deaf dancers, [Johim 00:42:16] and Angel, who have been really pushing their own presence. They’re on social media and have been really doing what they can.

Jeff: Do they dance to vibrations on the stage?

Marisa Hamamoto: Yes. Yes, they feel the vibration and dance. And actually, I was gonna recommend that they perform at the No Barriers summit at one point too. But yeah, they feel … they can’t hear, so they feel the vibrations and dance to the music that way. And crazy enough, both of them are very musical. Very musical, like I don’t really … even for me, I’m usually blown away at how musical they are, and they can’t hear, so they just feel the vibrations of the sound. On the other hand, we’ve been in situations where the flooring is concrete, and so the sound doesn’t travel through the floor.

Erik W.: They could [crosstalk 00:43:21].

Jeff: You want a nice wood stage, right?

Marisa Hamamoto: Ideally it’s a hollow wood stage. And ideally the speakers are on the ground, so the sound travels through the wood.

Jeff: There’s devices now, one of my friends is a sign language, he does ASL for different bands all over the country for deaf attendees, and there’s a vest, I think, that’s made now that sends the vibration from the sound, channels it into their chest, their torso. And then-

Erik W.: You know what’s interesting, is that’s Mick Ebeling, who’s been connected with No Barriers as well. He’s Not Impossible Labs, I think. He’s been one of the pioneers trying to develop that technology for the deaf, yeah.

Jeff: Okay, very cool. And sort of a cheaper version of that, I think, is the balloon, holding the balloon up against the chest to be able to feel those vibrations. I’ve seen people do that too.

Marisa Hamamoto: Yes, there’s all kinds of different … Technology right now is starting to pick up on various ways to make … I mean, Erik, you’ve presented some crazy, incredible products before around vision. It’s amazing what people are experimenting with, and I hope that these products become more accessible to anyone that can benefit from it.

Jeff: That’s a good dovetail into, as we kind of wind down here, I wanted to ask you about your stepping into corporate America for, I guess, your message teaches inclusivity and having the world open up for not just us as individuals, but within our corporate society. ‘Cause I know you’ve done performances in front of Apple and Facebook, and so can you-

Erik W.: Google, I think.

Jeff: Yeah, can you give us a sense of sort of the takeaways that a Fortune 500 company would find in having you and your crew there? What kind of feedback do you get after …

Erik W.: Yeah, and those guys are about innovation, relentless innovation, too. So they must be getting an amazing innovation message in watching the performance.

Marisa Hamamoto: Yes. So I consider myself, or ourselves, rather, keynote speakers and performers. So it’s not just entertainment that we’re bringing into the space of corporate events. We’re bringing thought leadership and thought leadership inside of our performance too. And it goes back to, because our brains process images 60 times faster than words, when you see the beauty of inclusion, you believe in its power and potential. So oftentimes … There is many wonderful theories and discussions around diversity, inclusion, accessibility. We come in in the place of inspiration and storytelling. And the performances are really powerful because we’ve heard the phrase over and over, a picture is worth 1,000 words.

Jeff: Yeah, and you can bring in a speaker who says value diversity, but you even said, I’ve heard you say it just turns into checking a box. What you’re talking about is this deep power, this magic, this mystery of a beautiful thing, where you feel how much potential it has, rather than just some diversity expert coming in and talking about it.

Marisa Hamamoto: Exactly. I think both work hand in hand. It’s good to have the theories, it’s good to have the statistics as well. But it’s good to, yeah, feel and experience what that is. So my general, what I like to call my keynote package for corporations, my ideal programming, is that we start with a performance, an inclusive dance performance. It might just be me and a wheelchair dancer, or me and my whole troupe. And then we go into, I’ll give a keynote talk about my story of overcoming adversity and learning to accept myself as being different and accept others as being different. And so the storytelling is really powerful. When you really hear authentic stories of how you overcame different challenges as well as how you learn to accept yourself as well as others, along that path someone’s gonna resonate with something within that. So this idea of being vulnerable and authentic storytelling is really powerful.

And it also helps others open up to what that is. ‘Cause at the end of the day we’re human beings and we share these common emotions and challenges in different ways. And ideally, after I talk, ideally we have, whoever else is dancing with me that day would have an opportunity to share, answer some questions, be on a panel as well. And then we always like to close with getting the whole room to dance together. And it’s kind of a combination of … it’s a brain break. I like to tell, I say “Look, if it’s too complicated, think of this as kind of recess and brain break.” And trust me, when you’ve been using your left brain all day you’re gonna want to use your right brain at some point. So anyway, it’s a brain break, but it’s also a reminder that we are one, we are all one at the end of the day.

Erik W.: Silicon Valley guys dancing might be even more embarrassing than me dancing, actually.

Jeff: Could be, could be, yeah.

Marisa Hamamoto: I’ve gotten 150 Red Bull distributors dancing, I have gotten like I think 50 lawyers, ADA lawyers dancing.

Jeff: Nice.

Marisa Hamamoto: Yeah, I’ve gotten tech people in tech, I’ve had all kinds of people. I mean, I will say this is a gift that God gave me, is to get the world to dance together. And I truly believe if the world danced, then there would be no war. And this is probably why I created Infinite Flow, is I truly do believe in the power of dance. I got the whole No Barrier audience dancing.

Erik W.: Heck yeah, it was the greatest.

Marisa Hamamoto: [crosstalk 00:50:08], and so it’s …

Erik W.: I like it, that is a bold statement. If people learned to dance together, there would be no war. That’s gonna be the quote for this podcast here.

Marisa Hamamoto: Exactly. But it’s so true. I think I went out of my way, even though I had no money, no nothing to kind of get this company started, I decided to figure out a way to do it, because I strongly believed in that bigger kind of … in that bigger mission, period.

Erik W.: Awesome.

Jeff: Well, you’re amazing, and I hope you can continue to do all the things that you do so effectively. There’s a difference between wanting to do something, thinking you can do something, and then doing something.

Marisa Hamamoto: Absolutely.

Jeff: So I applaud you for doing it. You’re doing it and living it every day and impacting hundreds of thousands.

Marisa Hamamoto: Just kind of seeing a role model example of a social enterprise within the space of inclusion, within, I think, disability advocacy, and just seeing how you guys are so warm, and also you make this whole space of inclusion and disability just a really cool thing. I can’t really describe how to do it, but …

Erik W.: Yeah, we want to be the rock concert that’s hard to get tickets to. That’s the way I’ve heard it described. Make it cool.

Marisa Hamamoto: I know. Make it cool. Yeah, make it cool. [crosstalk 00:51:31].

Erik W.: Yeah, make it a place that people want to be at. Because it is this connection that you’re talking about. And just my little memory is, when you were running some of those classes, some of those workshops, there were people in chairs and people with all kinds of disabilities, and also people with invisible barriers, which is most of the world, right? And injured veterans, and it was just really powerful to see that melting pot of people connecting beyond words. I think that, to me, leaves a lasting impact. I’ll never forget that.

Marisa Hamamoto: Yes. So I just want to say thank you. I will forever be a No Barriers fan and lover.

Erik W.: A family member, you’re family.

Marisa Hamamoto: Yeah, family member, there we go. I can’t tell you how influential it’s been. Again, more from a leader to leader here. So I just want to say thank you, and thank you for keeping me in the loop and having this opportunity to speak and connect.

Erik W.: Marisa, thank you.

Jeff: Thanks, Marisa.

Erik W.: So Jeff, I want to jump in, because this interview was so interesting, right? You learn something different when you talk to really interesting pioneers. And Marisa’s experience is a conglomeration of experiences, right, a lot of struggle, a triple whammy of things happening. Rejection and sexual assault and a physical disability. And through that struggle, she departs from ballet and moves into this new form of dancing, and finds sort of this purpose in life, this purposeful way to move forward. But I think that’s so important for people, because people always talk about overcoming adversity, and they throw out all these cliches about how it’s done. And it’s not like moving back, you can’t move backwards. And Marisa did not move back and just redouble her efforts and become a ballet star.

No, she found through that struggle a new way forward, and I think, I just want people to understand that, that that is the formula so often. You can’t see it at the time, but you gotta sort of have faith that you’re moving in this new direction.

Jeff: Yeah, and that without struggle life is nothing. It’s kind of a tenet of Buddhism, but I think it’s true, once you realize that. And hearing Marisa talk about her experiences, and she … because it’s such a part of her fabric, she said “Well, this happened and then this happened and then that happened.” And like you just mentioned, Erik, it was the sort of collection of all of those events that were the fuel, the catalyst to drive her into this place that she is now, where she’s impacting hundreds and thousands of people all the time. And the true definition of what it means to take a lemon and make lemonade. Which I think is indicative of the No Barriers community. Yeah, gosh, I mean, I’m grateful to have had a chance to listen to her.

Erik W.: Well, thanks, everyone. We also have in August in Colorado a What’s Your Everest event with a couple hundred people hiking a mountain together. Very diverse people, just like we were talking about today, so join us. Have a great day. No Barriers. See you later.

Thanks to all of you for listening to our podcast. We know that you have a lot of choices about how you can spend your time, and so we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at NoBarriersPodcast.com. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan band for our intro song, which is called “Guidance.” The production team behind this podcast includes producers Didrik Johnck and Pauline Schaffer. Sound design, editing, and mixing by Tyler Kottman. Graphics by Sam Davis, and marketing support by Laura Baldwin and Jamie Donnelly. Thanks to all you amazing people for the great work you do.

 

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