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Ballroom Dancing On Wheels

Inside the competitive and beautiful world of wheelchair dance by Esther Tseng

September 14, 2016

Education and Technology:

Microsoft Learning Tools is software that helps improve reading skills by reducing visual crowding, highlighting words, and reading text aloud, so students can engage with words in a whole new way.

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The first Saturday night of every month, Infinite Flow meets in a small and otherwise unremarkable dance studio in the Valley just outside Los Angeles for its community dance event.  In each session, one of the outside participants is paired with a regular. Participants spend a few minutes socializing and learning a few basic dance moves while rotating partners.

After a familiarizing group activity, dancers move toward the center of the room for couples instruction, one standing and one sitting. For newcomers with and without disabilities alike, it is an excellent way to experience first-hand the wheelchair dance company’s mantra:

Infinite Flow strives to break barriers socially and artistically, giving access to quality dance instruction in an inclusive environment where each person can thrive and make a difference. We are not only the first professional wheelchair ballroom dance company, but a vehicle for social change through multiple initiatives and media.

Marisa Hamamoto, the dance troupe’s proprietor, had been performing ballet and contemporary dance for 20 years. Then, in 2006, Hamamoto collapsed during a class while attending college abroad in Japan. She became paralyzed from the neck down and was diagnosed with Spinal Cord Infarction, leaving doctors uncertain whether she would walk ever again.

“I thought my life was over,” she says.  “Not being able to walk meant not being able to dance, and dance was everything to me.”

But Hamamoto was lucky, gradually regaining her mobility and being able to walk out of the hospital under her own power after two months—though she still does have partial paralysis in her left hand. Fast forward a decade, through hardship, strife and sheer will, and Hamamoto is running Infinite Flow, one of the only professional wheelchair ballroom dance companies in the country.

Ballroom dance was integral to Hamamoto’s recovery. And with more than 10 million U.S. citizens living with ambulatory disabilities, the need for wheelchair dance—not just in Los Angeles but in every community—is clear. At Infinite Flow, the social nature of ballroom is blended with the development of the art form as a bona fide, progressive sport. While there exist many one-off workshops encompassing a wide spectrum of sports for those confined to wheelchairs, there are very few organizations that are dedicated to continued progression in a certain discipline.

Hamamoto has now been teaching weekly wheelchair ballroom dance classes for one year in her space in the Valley. Her group and her business are young, but Hamamoto’s vision for what this unique dance troupe can do couldn’t be more certain.

“My first experience was wheelchair dancing wasn’t very professional, or even appealing or inspiring,” she tells GOOD. “I thought, ‘This could be so much better.’ As a dance teacher and dancer, I strive and continue to dance because I like to be challenged and I like to continue to expand, grow and progress. Even at the student hobby level. I teach a lot of people who never danced before, including adults. Even if it’s a once-a-week thing, they want to become better. That part is fun.”

Hamamoto pivoted on her experience with episodic paralysis, fusing her passion for ballroom dance with the need for consistent progression for those with ambulatory disabilities. Whether ballroom dance is an activity, hobby, or even profession for the wheelchair dancer, Infinite Flow’s goal is to provide a weekly lesson for its members, thereby facilitating not only the advancement of the dancer, but also the sport as a whole.

“A lot of people get isolated … because their condition is unique, so it’s hard to relate and let your guard down,” says participant Steve Bogna, a below-knee amputee. “This is a perfect place for that. I came in here to volunteer and ended up dancing.”

One year ago, Infinite Flow started a kids group, with which Hamamoto is still tinkering, but promises that “every week, we’ll have class.” It’s a simple promise, but an impactful one for its young members, as there is a void of consistent, progressive instruction of any sort of dance.

There are four wheelchair dancers who now are regulars with the company, in addition to two standing dancers (including Hamamoto) who are regulars. This core group acts as ambassadors for the company, getting called upon to perform at events. “It’s important that I had a group that can go and show what we do,” Hamamoto says. “[It looks] like professional dancing.”

On the global scale, wheelchair ballroom dancing is governed by the International Paralympic Committee, with this year’s World Cup taking place in St. Petersburg, Russia, and World Championships taking place in Rome in November. The sport’s origins date back to the 1960s in England, and in 1998, Wheelchair Dance Sport became an International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Championship Sport. In the United States, ballroom dancing holds a more social disposition rather than competitive, as in Europe and Asia.

Though Infinite Flow was invited to participate in the IPC World Cup in September, due to limited funds and lack of sponsors, none of their dancers were able to attend.

“[As far as] our plans and goals, there’s just so much more that we can do even without the dance floor competition; there’s so much that could be done right here in the community,” Hamamoto says, explaining that while competing in the World Cup competition usually is the ultimate goal in many sports, Infinite Flow has other plans that take priority.

In fact, she has dreams for the company to be represented on a national scale, aspiring to appear on “Dancing With the Stars.” Though Infinite Flow is decidedly a professional dance company, its mission is a movement for change through social inclusion—one that would be very well served on such a public platform.

"We could make a single appearance at a dance competition and leave it at that,” she says. “But with every sport where people judge you [as opposed to timed sports, for instance], the more appearances you make and the more familiar your face is, the better chance you have than a new face with the same guns.”

Putting wheelchair dancing in front of millions of viewers indeed would help normalize those with ambulatory disabilities within society. Contrary to popular belief, the most difficult challenges the disabled face don’t have much to do with their own mobility, but rather with prejudice and discrimination. “It really is a social movement for change and making inclusion part of reality with people with disabilities being a regular part of life—not anything that is looked down upon,” Hamamoto says.

Infinite Flow’s own part in advancing the sport is to raise the level of difficulty and artistry in their dances while positioned as a professional dance company. “There is no babying,” Hamamoto says. “There’s honesty and there’s authenticity and I think for me, it’s raising the bar: Making inclusion look cool, and not like charity.”

Sure, you have to ask for money, but it’s also about making the activity just as enjoyable for the viewer as it is for the dancers. “If it were just about community outreach,” Hamamoto says, “I would’ve gotten bored after a couple years. But with [the energies of] dance innovation and community outreach bouncing off each other, it makes it very exciting.”

All images via Michael Hansel.

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