Transcript, Episode 69: Black Ballet Legacies, TikTok NFTs, and Marisa Hamamoto

[Jump to Marisa Hamamoto interview.]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi, dance friends, and welcome to The Dance Edit Podcast. I’m Margaret Fuhrer.

Courtney Escoyne:
I’m Courtney Escoyne.

Lydia Murray:
And I’m Lydia Murray.

Margaret Fuhrer:
In today’s episode, we will talk about five pioneering Dance Theatre of Harlem alums who are working to reclaim their roles in ballet history, and why that reclaiming is so critically important. We will discuss the three TikTok artists who recently offered holograms of their viral dances as NFTs, and what that might mean for other dance-content creators, especially creators of color. We will get into Dance Magazine‘s just-released 30 over 30 list, highlighting brilliant dance artists who had breakthroughs or renaissances after age 29. And then we’ll have our interview with Marisa Hamamoto, the extraordinary dance artist who is a stroke survivor and the founder of Infinite Flow Dance, which is a nonprofit and dance company that employs dancers with and without disabilities. She’s doing invaluable intersectional work, pushing to make the dance world more inclusive on multiple fronts.

Marisa’s interview is actually the last interview we’ll be airing in a regular Thursday episode, and that is because, as we mentioned last week, we are getting ready to launch The Dance Edit Extra, our new interview-based project, which we are very excited about. So beginning soon, we’ll be making our conversations with dancers and choreographers and educators into their own independent episodes. Those episodes will become a premium series that you can subscribe to separately from the weekly roundtable news discussion. And we hope you’ll join us for that new adventure. You can find out more about The Dance Edit Extra at thedanceedit.com.

Okay, now it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown, beginning with an absolute doozy of a news story.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, everyone strap yourselves in, grab some popcorn. A feud has erupted very publicly between ballet star Natalia Osipova and Mikhailovsky Theater artistic director Vladimir Kekhman, after Osipova withdrew from performances of La Bayadère in St. Petersburg. Kekhman posted a blistering public statement attacking her credibility, accusing her of lying and feigning illness. And according to the New York Times, in a later interview, he stated she would never perform at the Mikhailovsky again. Royal Ballet artistic director Kevin O’Hare stated that Osipova was unable to make it to St. Petersburg due to a combination of the Royal’s busy schedule and COVID-related travel restrictions. She subsequently withdrew from a matinee performance at the Royal, citing an injury, and she has not publicly responded to any of this.

Margaret Fuhrer:
You know, when I first heard this story, my reaction was very much like, “Yeah, grab the popcorn.” I wanted to make terrible puns about Kekhman—who’s known as the banana king—like, “Ooh, it’s bananas, the situation is bananas.” And I stand by that choice. But Courtney, when we were emailing beforehand, you brought up some points about how we need to stop this whole thing of not believing women in ballet, or really just women anywhere, when they say that they are sick or in pain.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. Yeah, 100%. That’s, I think, very much at the crux of this story, is just treating women, and particularly women in ballet, like they’re inhuman.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, let’s not do that.

Lydia Murray:
It’s definitely a tradition that needs to be broken and completely reformed.

Pennsylvania Ballet will now be known as Philadelphia Ballet. This was the name that Barbara Weisberger had wanted to use and had briefly adopted when she founded the company in 1963, but it was changed because another organization had a similar name. The academy has also been renamed to The School of Philadelphia Ballet, and the second company has become Philadelphia Ballet II.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And the Philly Enquirer ran a piece about this with a buried lede, which is that director Angel Corella married dancer Russell Ducker. So congrats to them both!

Courtney Escoyne:
I think that was the thing that we were all freaking out about on Slack, was—it wasn’t so much the name change, it was like, “Cool, rebranding. Great…Oh, Angel got married?!” [laughter]

Following the departure of producer Scott Rudin in the wake of allegations of abuse and intimidation, Kate Horton has come aboard the upcoming Broadway revival of The Music Man as executive producer. The show is still expected to begin previews in December and will open in February.

Lydia Murray:
Daniel Riley was recently named artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre, making him the first Indigenous person to lead a non-Indigenous dance company in Australia. So congratulations there.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, that’s major.

Courtney Escoyne:
And still more director-shifting news: choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui will depart Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, where he’s been at the helm since 2015, to take over as artistic director of Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève in Switzerland next summer.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The game of European company director musical chairs continues.

Courtney Escoyne:
Honestly, on both sides of the Atlantic there’s so much shifting happening right now.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh yeah, totally. I just think it’s interesting how in Europe, it’s like they’re going from one company to—it’s just the same cast of characters moving around to different companies. But yeah, so much change everywhere.

Lydia Murray:
The Places Please Project was recently announced. The initiative is a non-profit fund that will provide $500,000 in rental relief to theater workers based in New York City who have been financially struggling, due to the coronavirus shutdowns. According to Deadline, the project aims to raise funds, evaluate applications, and disperse the funds between now and April of next year. Some much-needed relief.

Courtney Escoyne:
And a new study released by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition examining racial equity in New York City arts funding unsurprisingly found that theater companies and marginalized communities were vastly underfunded in comparison to white-led institutions. The study looked at the 2018–19 theater season, the last full season prior to the COVID-19 shutdown. Just one telling statistic in a report chock-full of them: white-led theater companies received nearly $150 million in total funding that season, while theaters of color received 12.5 million.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, it is unfortunate just how unsurprising that study is. But we’ll link to some analysis of the report and to the report itself in the show notes, so that you can learn more.

Lydia Murray:
Paul Feig and Tiffany Haddish will produce a musical dance dramedy titled Throw It Back. The film’s protagonist is a high school senior named Wytrell who has always remained in the background, but after a Miami rapper plans to feature her school’s dance team in a music video, Wytrell fights to join the group. The soundtrack will be heavy on southern hip hop and HBCU collegiate band music, and it sounds like so much fun.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And Shahadi Wright Joseph is starring, which is the best! All the press releases are talking about how she was in The Lion King and in Us, and rightly so, but I will never forget seeing her as one of the original kids in School of Rock on Broadway. She was a star from the minute she stepped on stage. So exciting.

Courtney Escoyne:
And in a turn of events straight out of our wildest nineties boy band dreams, members of *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys teamed up for a benefit performance in Los Angeles last week. “Back-Sync” featured AJ McLean and Nick Carter of Backstreet Boys and Joey Fatone and Lance Bass of *NSYNC, and rehearsal videos of the four of them performing the iconic choreography from the “Bye Bye Bye” music video went appropriately viral. The performance for Bingo Under The Stars was in celebration of Pride Month, benefiting The Trevor Project and LA Pride. Can we just get more of these team-ups, please? I’m living for this.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Forever and ever. And also, Lance Bass? Still got it. He was nailing that choreo.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, they all were, honestly.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah.

Lydia Murray:
The National Ballet of Canada recently announced the promotions for its upcoming season. Congratulations to Koto Ishihara, Siphesihle November, Tina Pereira, and Ben Rudisin, who will become principal dancers, and to new first soloists, Jeannine Haller and Calley Skalnik, as well as Brenna Flaherty, Noah Parets, and Genevieve Penn Nabity, who are rising to the rank of second soloist.

Courtney Escoyne:
Sipheeeee! I had to get that out of my system. [laughter]

The dance world marked the passing of two more luminaries this past week. Marianne Harkless Diabate, an esteemed dancer, choreographer and educator who worked to elevate black dance in Boston, died at age 63. And June Finch, a beloved and very influential Cunningham teacher, died at age 81. Seriously, this year needs to stop.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s got to stop. We actually have one more piece of news that broke just as we started recording, which is that New York City Ballet has announced the lineup for its fall fashion gala. Sidra Bell and Andrea Miller will both make their first ever works for the City Ballet stage, following their digital premiers last fall. Bell’s piece will be costumed by Christopher John Rogers, and Miller’s by Esteban Cortázar. It’s definitely a more diverse group than in typical years, which is noteworthy.

Lydia Murray:
I’m just so excited for that entire gala.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, that’s going to be such a wonderful way to come back to that theater, to see that company.

Lydia Murray:
Yes!

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right, so in our first longer segment today, we want to discuss a story the New York Times ran this past week about five alums of Dance Theatre of Harlem, five trailblazing Black ballerinas, whom, during the pandemic, started meeting weekly on Zoom. The dancers are Marcia Sells, Sheila Rohan, Gayle McKinney-Griffith, Karlya Shelton-Benjamin, and Lydia Abarca-Mitchell.

And initially it sounds like their meetings were mostly about community and comfort, reminiscing about their time with the company. But soon they realized they wanted to do more than that. They started a legacy council, with the idea of writing themselves back into the narrative of Black dancers in ballet, and into the broader American cultural narrative. Because our cultural memory is capricious and shortsighted, especially when it comes to Black artists, and leaving these dancers out of the story shortchanges everybody—I mean, the dancers themselves, but also their artistic descendants and the whole ballet world.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, these dancers’ stories were really kind of lost to history outside of Black ballet circles. They mentioned how often, when people outside of the ballet world talk about the first Black female ballerinas, they only discuss Misty Copeland. That’s all so many people know. But of course so many came before her and laid the foundation for what she and her contemporaries have been able to achieve. Misty and other highly visible Black ballerinas have, of course, talked about that history. Misty in particular has posted about it on social media, addressed it in interviews; she has an upcoming book dedicated to that subject called, literally, Black Ballerinas: My Journey To Our Legacy.

But for a lot of people, that still requires extra time spent researching, and many people won’t really take that step to dig and find out who else there is or was. And some things that underpin this issue, I think, are the ideas that legitimacy can only be granted by white institutions, along with ageism and the tendency for the public to only focus on one successful minority at a time. Those factors, I suspect, make it all the more tempting to zero in on, like, a Misty, or the kind of a few figures who are really prominent today, to the exclusion of their predecessors. And the gap in acknowledgement or notoriety widens as the new star’s popularity garners them even more opportunities. And it leaves these Black ballet legends on the margins.

The women in the story also spoke about feeling left out of Dance Theatre of Harlem itself. They said that they’re not often invited to give workshops or consultations on Mr. Mitchell’s ballets. So if these things are happening, today’s dancers will miss out on these women’s vast knowledge and wisdom, both creatively and professionally. Not only can they coach and teach and advise about roles and choreography and technique, but they could be a support system for dancers who are going through what they experienced years ago. And missing out on that ultimately hurts the ballet world as a whole.

This also ties in with a recent Dance Magazine story by Theresa Ruth Howard, about the varied reactions to Debora Chase-Hicks’ death, and the divide that reveals within the dance community. She was a huge figure in the Black dance world, but her contributions weren’t fully appreciated by those in the mainstream.

Courtney Escoyne:
And something to bring it back to—Lydia, you were talking about them not often being asked back to Dance Theatre of Harlem, and feeling like they weren’t giving back there specifically as much as they could have. I think this is an issue that goes beyond DTH. Dance is such an art form that by its very nature, it is communicated from practitioner to practitioner. That is where our history comes from. That is how the styles are passed down. That’s how it evolves and that’s how it holds onto tradition. But what we don’t necessarily always talk about is the fact that if, particularly in these highly visible companies, the pool of experiences that are being allowed to come back is very narrow, that in and of itself is pruning and editing the history in a way that is making it perhaps less diverse, less interesting and less varied. It’s how things get flattened out.

And so for all that, there’s this idea of preserving of the way it was meant to be done originally. Well, if you’re only talking to one or two of the people who were doing it originally, you’re getting a really narrow focus. You’re losing so many perspectives. And so having these artists— who, many of them do work with other dance companies around the country, particularly coaching Mr. Mitchell’s ballets—they’re still passing that on. But it needs to be everyone. It needs to be all of these experiences. Because yes, they worked with Arthur Mitchell, and every one of them would have had a different experience of that. And every single one of those experiences is equally valid and important to dance history and our field.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, it’s interesting that you pointed out those parallels to things that are happening elsewhere in the ballet world, Courtney, because I was just thinking a lot of this is similar to what happened at New York City Ballet specifically. There was this whole thing of, “Well, why aren’t all of these greats who learned from George Balanchine directly teaching his ballets to New York City Ballet company members?” But I’ve seen countless stories written about that. This is one of the first stories I’ve seen written about Dance Theatre of Harlem’s legacy, which, a similar thing is happening there, and we don’t even know—because who are the people telling the stories?

Which I think also relates to Theresa Ruth Howard’s piece about Debora Chase-Hicks. There are questions to consider about who’s doing the remembering, who is writing which people into their drafts of history, and how that ultimately affects who is credited, and who is recognized, and whose stories get told. And there’s stories like these all over the dance world, of trailblazing dancers of color who have been effectively forgotten.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, Lydia Abarca-Mitchell was the first Black ballerina on the cover of Dance Magazine.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Massive!

Courtney Escoyne:
Not many people could tell you that factoid offhand. You know, that’s important history, that’s a legacy that matters.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We’ll link to the New York Times piece. We’ll also link to Theresa Ruth Howard’s essay. Please go read them both. They’re both invaluable.

All right, next up we’re going to talk, once again, about NFTs. Lord help us—we’re going to do our best. This week, news broke that the production house Jadu has helped three Black TikTok creators offer holograms of themselves performing their viral dances as NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. The creators in question are Jalaiah Harmon, whose hologram features her iconic “Renegade” choreography; Cookie Kawaii, who’s doing her “Throw It Back” dance; and Blanco Brown, doing “The Git Up” dance. One NFT was minted for each of these holograms, and the creators received a majority percentage of the auction price. If you’re wondering what the holograms actually look like, there’s a video of them available online that we’ll link to—they’re pretty darn cool. And the bigger idea here, is that this is a way for Black creators, who are so frequently denied even proper crediting, to earn both recognition and compensation for their hugely popular work.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, so this establishes ownership of a dance, and it ensures that the creator gets paid something. And people can use the Jadu app to dance with those holograms without buying the NFT. But incentivizing use of those holograms is something I’m a little curious about, and it seems like that could make people less inclined to buy the NFT. It looks like the “Renegade” NFT only sold for about four and a half Wrapped Ethereum, which is a little less than $9,000.

I’d also imagine that this would be most valuable for a dance that has yet to go viral, because it seems like that’s when it would be crucial to determine the creator of a dance. How long does it take to create one of these hologram NFTs? Those are just some questions I have had.

Courtney Escoyne:
Which, point to that, is that the thing about the idea of creating an NFT for something before it is inherently valuable, is that because of the nature of how NFTs are created, it’s an incredibly energy-intensive process that requires a lot of startup cash investment in order to get started. Also not even going to get into all the environmental questions about the computer power that it takes, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. There’s lots out there, but it’s sort of a thing, where it is a massive upfront investment even to create one of these. And so the idea of creating one for something that is not yet viral, the question becomes, is that investment worth it? Does it make sense to do that?

I think the obvious upside here is that because of NFTs and the nature of the blockchain, you can trace ownership of it very directly. It is set up in a way that anytime anyone trades it, it kicks back to the original creators, which we absolutely love and think is great. However, I think the people I would argue that are really interested in these viral TikTok dances, who help make them go viral and who care about it, aren’t necessarily the people who are ponying up thousands and thousands of dollars to purchase a piece of cryptocurrency. I don’t know how much overlap there is between those two worlds, necessarily. So it’s an intriguing model, but it does raise a lot of questions.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, and I think that’s why the sale prices for these holograms ultimately weren’t that high. I mean, $9,000 is real money, but they weren’t as high as maybe expected, just because that Venn diagram doesn’t overlap as much as anticipated.

There are definitely a lot of questions about all of this. But I do like how these holograms link the dance permanently with the body of the person who created it. Because the first time we talked about dance NFTs, a few months back, it was in the context of emotes, where you could buy the signature moves of certain dancers, but they were performed by animated emotes, not the people themselves. This model, it’s Jalaiah doing the “Renegade”—that’s the hologram you’re buying. And that’s a kind of poetic clap-back for these creators, who initially found themselves divorced from their own dances, who saw them co-opted by so many other bodies, and often white bodies. So I thought that was sort of in the right spirit, at least, even though clearly there are a lot of kinks to be figured out in terms of how, or if, this can be monetized in an effective way.

Okay, so finally today we want to take a moment to celebrate the fantastic artists featured on Dance Magazine‘s 30 over 30 list, which just came out. Because it’s no secret that dance is totally obsessed with youth, and that obsession means that it often ends up sidelining all kinds of incredibly gifted mature artists. It’s frankly bonkers that mature is over 30 in dance, that’s insane, but…here we are. So the Dance Magazine list recognizes dancers who broke through or started the most successful chapters of their careers relatively late. And that’s a small step towards correcting that age bias, which I think we’re certainly guilty of perpetuating here at The Dance Edit too—awareness.

Can we actually just start by reading the full list to give each of these artists their moment in the sun?

Lydia Murray:
So, this list: Angie Schworer, Antoine Hunter, Olga Pericet, Miguel Gutierrez, Leslie Cuyjet, Theresa Ruth Howard, Ryan Heffington, Pam Tanowitz, Rosy Simas, Abby Zbikowski, Jennifer Homans, Stella Abrera, Bijayini Satpathy, Raimund Hoghe, Annie-B Parson, Monica Bill Barnes, Michelle Boulé, Nel Shelby, Mia Michaels, Dormeshia, Sonya Tayeh, Gesel Mason, Kris Lenzo, Melanie George, Cathy Marston, Jodi Melnick, Onye Ozuzu, Vanessa Sanchez, Camille A. Brown, and Kenny Ortega.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, that’s a list.

Lydia Murray:
All of these artists are incredible, and paying attention to dancers over 30 is so important, I think. And one of the many quotes that struck me from this piece was when Onye Ozuzu said, “I don’t think of myself as a late bloomer so much as I was a late starter.” So often when we recognize older dancers, it’s because they first achieved success at a young age, but that’s not the case for everyone. People can start on new paths at any point in life.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, I think also there was a through-line that I noticed through a number of choreographers’ quotes, talking about, “Yeah, once I realized that I wasn’t the hot young choreographer”—to use Pam Tanowitz’s phrase—you could just, “All right, I’m going to go in the studio with my dancers and focus on making good dances and figuring out what my voice is and honing that.” And then, whenever the wider dance world came calling and started noticing, it’s like, okay, well you have a point of view. You have all this life experience, you have a lot of experience honing your craft. And that makes for more mature and deep and interesting work.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, it can almost be freeing in a way, once you know that there’s no longer that expectation of you, I guess.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I was just going to say—the freedom of obscurity, which is a strange but true concept.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, I think also, there’s something to be said about, okay, yeah, you become the really cool new voice at age 18, or age 20, or 22 or whatever, but then—

Margaret Fuhrer:
So much pressure.

Courtney Escoyne:
—you know, one, there’s the pressure of knowing, okay, the next thing I make, a lot of people are paying attention to. But two, there’s also a level of expectation of, this is what I was successful doing. And so this is what people expect of me. And I think that there is always going to be that temptation, then, of, do I stick with what I know and have been praised for? At what point do you allow yourself to maybe try to completely reinvent, or go in a different direction that maybe wasn’t what you were being called out for with this early success? You know, it creates a thing where, are you accidentally getting typecasted by getting called out so early, when you’re maybe still figuring out your own voice?

Margaret Fuhrer:
You’re put in a box really quickly, yeah. Another through-line that I noticed in a bunch of these profiles was the idea that while dance is focused on the body, your biggest asset as a dance artist is often your mind. And in dance, we tend to sort of glamorize the idea of ethereality, of the performance that exists only in the moment. And then its analogue, the body that is impossibly beautiful for a short period of time and then disappears from the stage. I mean, I do think it’s heartening that parts of the dance world, at least, are beginning to rethink what bodies “belong” on stage. And that’s thanks in part to the work of some of these artists that are being recognized. But even though bodies are fallible, ideas are durable. A few of the people featured essentially said, the key to longevity in this field is to cultivate the way you think about dance, as much as you cultivate the way you dance, which I thought was beautiful.

Lydia Murray:
Yes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right, we’re going to take a break. And when we come back, we’ll have our interview with Marisa Hamamoto. So stay tuned.

[pause]

INTERVIEW WITH MARISA HAMAMOTO

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hey, everyone. I just wanted to say, before we start the interview, that this conversation does include a few mentions of sexual assault. So please proceed with caution, and take care of yourselves.

[pause]

Welcome back, dance friends. It is my pleasure now to welcome dance artist and changemaker Marisa Hamamoto. Hi, Marisa! Thank you so much for joining today.

Marisa Hamamoto:
Hello Margaret. Thank you so much for having me.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s so great to have you here. Marisa has—well, she has an extraordinary resumé, but really she has an extraordinary life story. She is a spinal stroke survivor and the founder of Infinite Flow Dance, which is a nonprofit and professional dance company that employs dancers with and without disabilities. Marisa is also a fourth generation Japanese American. She has become a powerful advocate for inclusion in dance and well beyond it. She is a keynote speaker who brings awareness to accessibility and who celebrates intersectionality. She was recently named one of People magazine’s Women Changing the World, which, congratulations!

I could keep going—she has this long list of accolades. Instead, Marisa, would you tell listeners a little of what you think they should know about your dance story?

Marisa Hamamoto:
Sure, absolutely. It’s been a while that I’ve been able to speak to a dance audience, so I’m very, very excited. I get to actually use dance terminology and everybody knows what I’m talking about here!

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes, talk to us nerds! Give it to us.

Marisa Hamamoto:
Anyways, I grew up in Irvine, California. I attended a predominantly white elementary school. My earliest memory of experiencing anti-Asian discrimination was when I was only seven years old—I still remember this really clearly—in which I was playing on the playground with my Chinese friend, Alice. A group of boys ran over to us just to make fun of the shape of our eyes. Then a couple of days later, I have people from my class making fun of me bringing a Japanese bento lunch. If you think about it, bringing a Japanese bento lunch to elementary school, that’s like a luxury nowadays.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Pretty cool, actually.

Marisa Hamamoto:
But you know, as a kid, being picked on like that is really hurtful. On the other hand, I attended weekly ballet classes at the local dance studio in Irvine. I was the only girl of color in these ballet classes as well. But something about moving my body to music with the other girls made me feel like I belonged. Dance became my happy place.

Then during my teenage years, I embarked on this mission to become a professional ballerina. But I was very much told over and over that my body wasn’t right for ballet. I was like a workhorse. I just kept on trying and trying and I was doing everything I can to become a professional ballerina, but my body just didn’t fit that mold.

During my teens as well, I was also sexually assaulted by one of my ballet teachers. This is something that I’ve only recently opened up about. I’m still honestly kind of making sense of the situation. This teacher who I trusted and considered a mentor not only didn’t believe in me, he also compared my body to others’, and then also sexually assaulted me.

When you’re a teenager, you don’t know how to respond, react. I did not know how to seek help. I didn’t tell my parents. It was a very hurtful incident. Eventually, I realized perhaps I need to just take leave from the dance world, so I did. I said, you know what? I remember the day that I actually took my dance shoes to the dumpster and put them in there saying, I’m done, I’m not returning to this.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Not just symbolic, but a literal “here are my shoes.”

Marisa Hamamoto:
Yeah. I remember taking my pointe shoes, my ballet shoes, I think I had a pair of character shoes or something, I can’t remember—but I took all my dance shoes, my whole dance bag and just threw it into the trashcan. Oh my gosh, I think that’s the first time I’ve ever talked about that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I’m getting anxiety hives on your behalf thinking about that. Oh my gosh.

Marisa Hamamoto:
It was just too painful. Definitely the sexual assault was haunting me this whole time too.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I’m sorry to stop you in the middle of your story.

Marisa Hamamoto:
Go ahead.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I’m wondering if you’re willing to talk a little more about your assault. I don’t know how comfortable you are talking about it. But it’s one of those things where I feel like…the ballet world in particular sees a lot of this, because of the structure of the world itself, where the teacher isn’t just set up as an authority figure, but students are taught to interact with ballet teachers specifically as absolute authorities. Also, because their criticism is all about your body to begin with, then when it’s taken into this other context, it becomes that much more malignant. I’m not even asking a question here.

Marisa Hamamoto:
Oh no. Please, Margaret. No. I agree with you.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I really just appreciate your willingness to talk about it, because I think so many other dancers have had similar experiences and are still not at a place where they can talk about them. So I appreciate your openness to discussing this.

Marisa Hamamoto:
Absolutely. Yes, let’s acknowledge that even in this year, 2021, especially when it comes to classical ballet, it’s almost like a formula: You have to have a certain body. You’ve got to have feet that point. You’ve got to have hips that turn out. You’ve got to have an arabesque that’s up here. There’s all these requirements. In a way—I mean, I like looking at good art too, and in a way, some of that has pushed the boundaries of the human body to do things that it normally doesn’t. At the same time, let’s also acknowledge that dance is a universal language. Dance has existed since prehistoric times. Dance is part of our DNA and part of humanity. There’s this disconnect between the dance industry’s demands and what dance is at the core.

My story of being told over and over that my body wasn’t right—you’re too fat, you’re too this, you’re too that, you don’t have the right feet, you don’t have the right hips, all of those—this is not just my story. As a mature adult now, it’s still hurtful to be told those words. When I look at a teenager nowadays, I’m like, oh my gosh, I can’t believe teachers said such brutal things to a dancer that is this young and this vulnerable. I just can’t imagine. I still can’t comprehend it.

I can’t say that I fully am 100% gung-ho with social media either—I think there’s some toxic culture among social media—but among the good stuff is that there is a body positivity movement out there. There is dancers like Amanda LaCount who is killing it out there with being a plus size dancer. I worked with her a couple of times myself, and am just really grateful for dancers like her who are willing to be bold and brave in that regard.

But I think this topic of body shaming, using your authority and your position to harass or unintentionally harass any dancer, whether they’re a professional or a student or whatever age they be, is not okay. It’s just not. I think it’s important for, I think teachers and directors, anybody in the authoritative position, to really look at their practices in regards to how they are psychologically affecting their dancers, is my opinion. Regardless of what the composition is.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It does seem like, thankfully, there is growing awareness of the mental health needs of dance students—that just as important as training them technically is helping them become resilient mentally, and treating them with compassion and empathy, so that they’re mentally healthy dancers as well as good performers.

Marisa Hamamoto:
Yes, absolutely. I definitely, I think—having been a Dance Magazine subscriber since I was, I don’t know, like 12—I think the health columns have evolved definitely over the years. I see the evolution of your publication as well. That’s great to see.

But returning to my story.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, that was a major detour, sorry!

Marisa Hamamoto:
No worries. No worries.

I ended up going to college in Japan to a university called Keio University. It was an all-academic school, sometimes considered the Harvard of Japan. It was a very elite private university. I went to college to Japan partly because I felt like I just needed to escape the trauma that I had experienced here in the States, in all honesty.

But what ended up happening is when I visited campus, when I interviewed for this college, while I was there, I was like, “Hey mom, I know I’m not really dancing dancing anymore, but I think I’ll probably just continue to take a ballet class here and there in Japan so I could just keep myself in shape. Let me just go and observe a couple of classes.” I didn’t even take class, because I was not really dancing. I went and observed a few classes and I realized, oh my gosh, this is the same language I know, it’s ballet. The barre looks the same. Everything looks the same—except how things were run in class were so different from the States. Being Japanese, looking Japanese, speaking Japanese but having grown up in the United States, I was just in culture shock. My ultimate decision to actually go study in Japan was that I was like, you know, there’s lots to learn about my own Japanese culture, and I think I’m probably going to learn this most from the dance world.

Anyways, in the context of being at this Japanese university, I found myself again, just like the playground during elementary school: Even though I was amongst people of the same color as myself, I could not find belonging. I had a very hard time finding friends, connecting with other Japanese students.

What did I turn to? I went to the dance studio, so that, and again, I feel like dance again became this place of home. I immersed myself again as a dancer. I think by the time senior year came around, I wanted to dance with a dance company. That was my goal.

One day in 2006—actually July 26th, 2006—I was in a contemporary dance class. I remember feeling really good that day. It was just one of those great dance days where everything is like clicking and you’re flying and like, okay, this feels good. You know?

Margaret Fuhrer:
You’re on. Yup.

Marisa Hamamoto:
In the middle of that, I just started to feel my elbows tingle. Then I felt my legs go numb. Then sooner or later I find myself on the floor of the studio. I found myself not able to move my arms, not able to move my legs. I had lost sensation throughout my whole body. When someone came and touched me, I couldn’t feel it. I had a panic attack, but I couldn’t move.

The next day I was diagnosed with spinal cord infarction, which is a rare stroke in the spinal cord, and was told by the doctor that I may never be able to walk or dance again. As a dance junkie that was living and breathing dance every day, which I’m sure many listeners here are that too, I mean, it was…

The only dance I knew at that time is that you’ve got to be between 5’4″ and 5’8″ and weigh between 95 and 120 pounds.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Sure. Already such a small box.

Marisa Hamamoto:
That is the only type of dancer I knew. Of course I thought my life, my dance career, was over.

Long story short, two months later, I did walk out of the hospital. After I left the hospital, I was initially on a high, but it quickly turned into a low. The stroke had triggered a lot of trauma from the past. A lot of this was very much connected to dance, rejection, body shaming, sexual assault, not fitting the box, discrimination. It all piled on during the hospital stay, after the hospital stay, as I was dealing with PTSD from the stroke itself. Any time I felt any tingling in my body, I would start to…

Margaret Fuhrer:
Freak out!

Marisa Hamamoto:
…freak out. I would also sometimes have nightmares of the whole episode reoccurring. Also, because the stroke happened inside of a dance studio, I was scared to dance.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I was just going to ask—it feels like the scene of the crime.

Marisa Hamamoto:
Every time I would see some dance, dance poster or dance studio sign, or anyone with any kind of dance anything, I would black out. That went on for a while.

Fast forwarding: I end up going to grad school, but now it’s like, I didn’t have the outlet of dance anymore. I was scared of dance, and so it was this very dark, depressing time. I kept on telling myself that I am destined to be a dancer. I don’t know what that is, but I am destined to be a dancer. I’m going to do something amazing with dance. I don’t know what that is, but I’m going to keep going.

In 2010, I was at this New Year’s holiday party-ish place. It was mostly non-dancers, corporate professionals. At this kind of gathering, of about a hundred people, there was a salsa entertainment portion. This couple came out, they performed; they were not great. But afterward, they got the entire audience to get onto the dance floor and do the six step salsa basic step.

I was blown away. This is Tokyo. Japanese people are not known to get onto the dance floor and just dance. We’re just not that type of a culture. I’m in the middle of this looking around going, oh my God, why the heck am I so scared to dance? In that moment, I remember thinking, okay, there’s got to be something for me here. I don’t know what that is.

A week later I took my first three-hour salsa beginner bootcamp. I remember leaving that bootcamp going, oh my gosh, that was amazing, and I did it. It just felt like a huge milestone within my life, that I went back and back and back. Then I’m like, you know what? I’m going to make this my new dance career. Now, at that time, I did not know the difference between salsa, Latin ballroom, tango… [laughter] I spent about a year and got my ballroom dance certification.

After all of that, I ended up returning back to the States, realizing that I wanted to spend more time with family. Yeah, I mean, initially I had very high hopes and dreams here in L.A. However, I quickly found out that I just did not fit the mold of the Hollywood dancer.

Margaret Fuhrer:
What were your initial goals—sort of entertainment-industry dance jobs?

Marisa Hamamoto:
It was commercial. I wanted to explore acting. It’s very typical of probably any dancer that moves here. But I quickly realized that I just did not fit quite the mold of the Hollywood dancer, on multiple occasions—whether it was in the ballroom world or actually in Hollywood, too. I was told that Asians don’t fit the role of a ballroom dancer. There’s multiple locations where I just felt like, okay, I think I would have gotten that role if I was blonde. I was also told by my agent—at that time my hair was dark brown or dyed dark brown—”You need to dye your hair black, because you’re not going to look Asian enough if it’s brown.” I can laugh about it now, because I’m so out of that world in a way, but it is a problem. It is a problem. I’m not really surprised about a lot of conversation around representation for Asians right now.

Anyway, going back to my story, to get to Infinite Flow. So I hit rock bottom in 2014. I found myself again in that dark spot of not feeling like I belong. And I accidentally discovered wheelchair dancing.

Margaret Fuhrer:
How did you discover wheelchair dancing?

Marisa Hamamoto:
Initially it was just a Google search, a simple Google search of “paralysis and dance.” I was blown away at the fact that it was possible to even dance without the use of your limbs, because that was the last thing I thought was possible when I was in the most acute situation, where I couldn’t move my arms, couldn’t move my legs, lost sensation—I mean, I really did not think that was possible. Then I found out that one in four Americans, or that is 61 million Americans, have a disability. Yet it was very clear to me that people with disabilities didn’t have equal access to dance.

One thing led to another. I was looking for a wheelchair dance partner. I found a paraplegic athlete named Adelfo randomly on Instagram. We ended up meeting in the studio. He has zero background dancing; I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. But after a couple hours of dancing with him, or experimentally dancing with him and trying to figure out the rumba, I realized that dancing with Adelfo was nothing different from dancing with anyone else.

I always say dance doesn’t discriminate. When you’re dancing with someone, you see beyond race, color, size, age, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. This experience was so profound, and I felt so called and compelled to share that with the world, that a few months later, that became Infinite Flow.

Long story short, we’ve evolved into this mission to promote inclusivity and intersectionality as a whole. I would say that what we are working towards here is systemic change. We’re using dance as a catalyst to create systemic change in the world.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, in the telling of your life story, you essentially answered my next 15 questions, which is great. But I want to come back to this idea that you touched on, which is something you say a lot, which is that dance doesn’t discriminate. There’s a home in dance for everyone. Can you talk a little bit more about what it is that makes dance such a powerful unifying force? And then, why are we—inside the dance world, why do we often experience it as exactly the opposite, as this exclusionary practice that puts people into boxes?

Marisa Hamamoto:
Well, first of all, I love that Dance Media is talking about this. Because I don’t think 30 years ago Dance Magazine was talking about this stuff.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We’re all learning.

Marisa Hamamoto:
It’s great that the primary publication of dance in this country is evolving.

First of all, we as human beings, we all have a body. Whether that body is missing a limb or you learn differently or move—I mean, we all have a body. This body is made to move. It’s made to express. If we go back to prehistoric times, dance was used as celebration, as ritual. It was used in so many ways that was just part of daily life and daily ritual or ritual in general. We might not verbally understand each other, but physically, we all have bodies that we are able to—all speak with our bodies. When you see another body that’s moving, somehow you can either relate to it, or you end up having an opinion about it, because it’s another body in space and time. Dance is a language that everyone has access to. This is why dance is powerful.

However, in the world of dance or professional dance, I would say, it becomes about performance, about looking a certain way. All of that turns into, now, segregation and separation. This is why I believe the dance industry itself can oftentimes still be not as inclusive as we want it to.

But I also want to point out that I think the dance world is a microcosm of the rest of the world in so many ways when it comes to—whether we’re talking about white privilege, or racial discrimination, or ableism, or all of that—it’s a reflection of the rest of the world. The reason why I do the work I do is because dance is also a powerful tool to change the world. You show you understand—you do things in the context of dance that, let’s say, disrupts. Let’s say in our case, we are creating, we’re promoting inclusion through dance—that can influence the world outside of dance, too. It can work both ways. Like dance is the microcosm of the rest, but the microcosm can also influence the rest of the world.

What I will say is that the work I do is not easy. I’ve basically devoted my life to this work. I’ve put myself aside to do this work. I mean, now it’s like I’m in this whole self-care journey, recognizing that I can’t put my myself second anymore, but this work of basically disrupting what exists is not easy. It takes courage. It takes a lot of courage to say, this is not right. There’s a better way to do this. I’m going to disrupt it. Even if people say I’m wrong, I’m going to still continue to do what I believe is right.

I also believe that I am paving a new path or hopefully paving a new path for dancers to also become changemakers. I think what I want to tell dancers is that if you choose to use dance as a catalyst for change, there is an avenue for you. I do want to see more dancers embark on this changemaker journey. I think in a year’s time or so, I’ll probably be creating some accelerator for dancers to—a cool cohort of dancers who want to take that leap of faith and combine their desires to create change in the world and combine that with dance to create change. That’s something that I would say in the future I would love to build and perhaps I could work with Dance Media in creating that initial cohort and application call.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Let’s talk, please! Yeah.

Marisa Hamamoto:
I think even just the Gen Zs that are coming up right now, they’re all about social justice and being part of something good, wanting to see change, like… That is also seeping into the dance world.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I’m glad that you mentioned self-care, because you are taking on so much, and all of these issues that you are in the middle of are so complicated and so heavy. You’ve mentioned that you are undergoing a metamorphosis. I’m wondering if you’d be comfortable elaborating on what you mean by that. What has been changing in the way that you view or conceive of yourself and your work?

Marisa Hamamoto:
Yeah. Well, let’s just acknowledge this pandemic, for the dance world, or for anyone in movement arts, or just anyone in general—this pandemic has been very challenging. But especially for the dance world. I mean, I was at a dance studio yesterday and I’m like, oh my God, this is just amazing that you all are open and there’s people here. It’s a celebration. I mean, I think we can all empathize with empty dance studios and empty theaters and empty ballrooms.

I mean, it’s been a tough year for me too. We were on a roll when it comes to booking and touring and projects. I mean, we were on a roll, and suddenly all of that got lost. Yes, we did pivot. I found new creative ways. But also, it was like where a lot of the trauma that I hadn’t processed again came back all over again. And I realized, oh, okay, maybe this time of just not having a full schedule of performances and rehearsals and all this stuff, maybe this is meant for me to process all this trauma that I thought I processed but I didn’t. A lot of the metamorphosis is just kind of from a spiritual sense, it’s healing old childhood wounds, which a lot of this is coming from my experience with dance, but other things as well.

I think we’ve all learned during this time that it’s okay sometimes to take a break. It’s okay sometimes to preserve your energy and spend some time alone or take some time off. In my case, it was also just going back to my own body expression and what that is. I mean, recently I started roller skating. It’s my new hobby right now, but it’s so, like—I love being back as student! And that’s been my way of, that combined with just getting back into the studio, whether it’s alone or with a partner, just dancing without any expectation. Just not like—whatever we’re doing in this dance studio right now might not necessarily get on stage, but let’s just dance and just get back in touch with our bodies.

I would say that I’m still going through a metamorphosis. I don’t know. This might continue for a while. And that’s okay. At the same time, it’s great that we’re opening up, that we’re heading back into physical rehearsals slowly. Getting into the groove back of all this is, it’s great.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Light at the end of the tunnel, long-awaited light. Marisa, thank you so much for taking the time today. I really appreciate you being so honest—because, I mean, that was raw. Thank you for sharing all that with us.

I’m wondering, first of all, where can listeners go to keep up with you? Where can they follow you? And then, what projects do you have on the horizon that we should all keep an eye out for?

Marisa Hamamoto:
Sure. You can follow me @marisahamamoto or @infiniteflowdance. Right now, projects are still in planning, in the works. We will be announcing stuff soon. Lots of new ideas—but again, I usually have too many ideas, and I’ve got to pick and choose and go with what makes sense.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We will stay tuned. We are excited to hear more. I’ll link to all of your pages and accounts in our show notes too, so people can get to them that way. Marisa, thank you so much again. It was a pleasure.

Marisa Hamamoto:
Thank you so much for having me.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thanks again to Marisa. She has such an unbelievable story of resilience. And I also love the idea of the pandemic leading to a metamorphosis, which she talked about—to her personal metamorphosis, but also in a broader sense, like we’re all emerging from our chrysalises now. I thought that was kind of lovely.

All right, thanks everyone for joining us this week. We’ll be back next week for more discussion of the news that’s moving the dance world. Keep learning, keep advocating and keep dancing.

Courtney Escoyne:
Mind how you go, friends.

Lydia Murray:
Bye everyone.