I am so excited to introduce you to a woman who is making major strides for those in need. I had the pleasure of meeting her at a Los Angeles Business Journal event last year where she was a keynote speaker. She took one small challenge in her life and turned it into several businesses. She is the epitome of confidence, poise and grace.
StilettoGal: Tell us about yourself and your company?
I am a professional ballroom & salsa dancer and dancepreneur and currently run 3 businesses
- Sexy Salsa Ballroom (www.SexySalsaBallroom.com): Quality dance instruction & dance entertainment, founded in 2012.
- Infinite Flow – A Wheelchair Dance Company (www.InfiniteFlowDance.org): A non-profit 501(c)3 and America’s first professional wheelchair ballroom dance company, founded in 2015.
- Marisa Hamamoto (www.MarisaHamamoto.com): me myself as dancer, actress, speaker, and … hopefully author in the near future.
SG: What was the inspiration behind launching your company?
MH: Dancing has been a passion of mine since I was 6 years old. It made me feel powerful, beautiful, and free from a young age, and during my teens I pursued a professional ballet career seriously. I wasn’t made for classical ballet and after rejection after rejection, I gave up on the ballerina career. However, I continued to dance during my college years and secretly hoped to build a career as a contemporary dancer.
In July 2006 while a Senior at Keio University in Tokyo, in the midst of a contemporary dance class after school, I felt some tingling in my elbows, and momentarily collapsed onto the ground. I couldn’t move my legs or my arms and I lost sensation from the neck down. The next day I was diagnosed with a rare neurological disease called Spinal Cord Infarction and was told I may never walk again. I was devastated because not being able to walk meant not being able to dance, and dancing was everything to me.
Some dark days continued, but there was still a voice inside of me that said “DANCE” and I was determined to find a way to dance no matter what, and continued to imagine myself dancing and incorporated my dance knowledge into all aspects of rehabilitation. 2 months later, I miraculously walked out of the hospital.
While my physical recovery happened faster than anyone had imagined walking out of the hospital after 2 months, I suffered PTSD for several years fearing that the paralysis could return anytime, and distanced myself from dancing as well as a social life altogether. However, once a dancer, always a dancer, even at the darkest of times I continued to believe that I would find myself dancing again at the end of the tunnel.
In Jan 2010, I discovered salsa and ballroom dancing and fell in love with it immediately. Partner dancing was not only a great way to continually rehabilitate my mobility, but through ballroom and salsa, I was also making new friends, challenging myself artistically, and my spirits were being uplifted. Thanks to the new dancing, I was able to pull myself out of fear and PTSD.
I soon earned my certification as a ballroom dance instructor, returned to the states, worked for a year in Orange County for a ballroom dance studio, and when I moved to Los Angeles in 2012 to pursue an entertainment career, it was by survival I started my own dance instruction business, next to performing and acting. Sexy Salsa Ballroom started with one class per week with 6 adult students. I put my heart and soul into creating programs that were financially and socially “accessible”, and today I count close to 1500 students who have walked into my classroom doors with a relatively high retention rate. The results have been amazing: Just like ballroom and salsa dancing gave me back my life, I am happy to so many adults not only becoming good at a new hobby but also building lifelong friendships, including some who have found their significant other.
In March 2014, I discovered wheelchair dancing at the LA Abilities Expo, and having been paralyzed from the neck down myself, I couldn’t help but feel compassion, and felt like there was something there for me. One thing led to the next, including instructing a wheelchair wedding couple for their First Dance and finding a wheelchair dance partner to experiment with (Adelfo), and discovering how underdeveloped wheelchair dancing was along the way, in January 2015, as a way of giving back my love and passion for dance to those who continue to live with paralysis, I founded Infinite Flow – A Wheelchair Dance Company.
Infinite Flow officially became a nonprofit 501(c)3 in March 2015, and with ballroom dancing and other commercial dance forms as its base, Infinite Flow has the mission to break barriers artistically and socially through excellence and innovation in wheelchair dance performance. In the last year, we have accomplished much to get the organization up and running and we are moving forward in strides, week by week. I look up to productions such as Deaf West Theater’s Spring Awakening, closing its run on Broadway shortly am driven to build Infinite Flow to become the American Ballet Theatre of wheelchair dancing.
SG: What has been your biggest challenges thus far in starting a business?
MH: I would say my biggest challenge has been learning to delegate. I have always been a strong independent minded person, and asking others for help has been a challenge. This has changed slowly over the last year as Infinite Flow – A Wheelchair Dance Company took shape one project at a time, and seeing the potential of the impact and difference the company can make globally, I realized it was for the better for the society to ask for help and recruit the right talent and team.
SG: What are three tips you could give to young entrepreneurs about launching a business?
1. Pursue Passion & Purpose
Starting your own business is like marriage or bringing up a child. Even if you are not at your desk, on the phone, networking, or delivering the service or product, your business is part of you 24/7, and maybe in the beginning 25/8, so you’ve got to like the business you pursue and find enjoyment and fulfillment in the work. Passion is not enough, however. Both passion and purpose have to work together. Your purpose, I think lies in an innate talent you have, or a unique ability you have. What do you love to do? What do you care about? And what are you good at? Be honest, and keep seeking if you haven’t figured it out yet. If you are someone who has multiple passions, start with one passion and you can always expand later. All 3 of my businesses are based on my passion for dance and purpose to share the power of dance, whether performing, teaching, choreographing, speaking, producing, or writing.
2. Find the Missing Link
Go back to the scientific method: Ask a question, do background research, construct a hypothesis, test it out… What problem are you trying to solve in your business? What is missing in your market? It doesn’t have to be a global or national issue, your new business may be fulfilling a local need. If there is a need, and you have a means to fulfill the needs, there may be a business opportunity there for you.
3. Just Do It
It’s very easy to daydream and talk. Training, education, and study is useful, but ultimately you got to just do it. Take action, even if it is small. Put a deadline to a project and go for it. You don’t have to have a full business plan written up to get started, you can write it up along the way. Hands on experience will give you the answers to what is next.
SG: What do you want your legacy to be?
MH: Borrowing Martin Luther King’s words, “I have a dream that one day all the little wheelchair girls and wheelchair boys can join hands with all the little ambulatory girls and ambulatory boys like brothers and sisters.”
Alvin Ailey created a professional contemporary dance company of minority black dancers in 1958, and Arthur Mitchell created Dance Theatre of Harlem (a ballet company) in 1969. Both dance visionaries created the companies so African American dancers had a place to train, grow, showcase their talents in an accepting environment, and make a living as dancers during an era in which black dancers were not yet quite seen as contemporary or classical dancers. Both dance companies became companies that young black dancers around the nation looked up to the dancers in the two companies, and today they are both mainstream and high quality professional dance ensembles as well as respected educational institutions, and African American dancers are seen performing in dance companies across the nation. Infinite Flow can do the same with dancers with disabilities. Just because you are black doesn't mean you can't be a classical ballerina, and just because you have a disability doesn't mean that you can't be an extraordinary dancer and dance professionally.
That’s one of my legacies.
SG: What kind of shoe are you and why?
MH: Dance Boot: Danceable, Sexy, Adventurous, Unique