Friday, June 26, 2009

Tango dancer starts dance program for amputees

From the San Francisco Examiner:

Imagine being in Buenos Aires and being unable to dance tango? Argentine tango dancer and teacher Naomi Hotta had just that happen to her, yet this year, she attempting to take that experience and inspire others who might not other wise try tango: amputees.

"In 2004 I tore my ACL and spent the last month in Buenos Aires just sitting around watching other people dance. I was very depressed. I love dancing. It was like my life was over," she said in a recent telephone interview.

Hotta was born in the United States, but has lived in Tokyo where she learned rhythmic gymnastics and flamenco. In 2001, she joined the Los Angeles-based "Salsa Brava Dance Company" that took her around the world and she also won several salsa competitions in Los Angeles. In 2004, she began to learn tango and went to Argentina to train for five months, making the finals of the Second World Tango Competition.

After the injury, she had surgery. Locals know Hotta has been teaching and dancing. Now nearly five years after her injury, Hotta has begun her EMBRACE Project.

"I really wanted to do something in tango more than gathering achievements and performing. Tango is a dance for any age and any nationality," she recalled. "I wanted to spread the joys of tango." Hotta hadn't heard or seen the much-vilified Heather Mills McCartney on "Dancing with the Stars," but people mentioned it to her when she began this project.

How to start was somewhat tricky. "I didn't know anybody. I did research on the Internet. I met Katy Sullivan through someone. Sullivan is a double amputee, but she runs and is an actress. She helped me get in touch with people. Prosthetics companies sent emails to see if anyone was interested." Sullivan, for those who don't know, was in the 2008 movie "The Break Up" and a 2008 episode of the new-defunct series "My Name Is Earl." Hotta then got in contact with the Mutual Amputee Aid Foundation. President and Acting Editor, Phil Tamoush, started spreading the news through his newsletters.

"The first amputee class was on April 4. I had another class in May and this Tuesday will be the third class," she said. In April, she had two amputee participants and 18 tango dancers to help support the project at the Tango Room in Sherman Oaks. On May 23, only one amputee came, but he brought his significant other. Eight people had RSVP-ed. Despite the low turnout, Hotta feels that the interest has been growing. In the photos, provided by Hotta, Brenda Maroney is dancing with Angel Echeverria. Below tango instructor Mitra Martin dances with Richard Wu.

"One of the challenges for me as a teacher is figuring out what is more challenging and what is not. How quickly do I move forward in the class. I found that amputee dance students are very quick at learning. I think it's because of their sense of body awareness. They can easily understand weight-shifting. In a way, the class goes faster than an able-bodied beginner class. Still, the prosthetics and gear are different for each student and we need to figure out what they can do and where we need to make an adjustment."

Hotta feels through these experiences she learned that it "might be difficult for amputee patients to trust you. For the leader, it is very difficult and scary to improvise. It is something new, creating out of the unknown. A follower told me it was scary because it was hard to trust and it is hard to let go. The leader must be confident" and that's not easy when your able-bodies and less so when you're dancing. Still Hotta feels, "They can do it. It is not super challenging like they imagine it to be."

The Tuesday, 23 June class, is a last-minute thing according to Hotta. One of the students from the first class, Brenda Maroney (pictured in the above photo with Angel), couldn't make the second class, but kept requesting another class.

"If you can walk, you can tango," Hotta stated, "at any level of physical stability. The main thing about tango is to connect with someone and enjoy the music. At whatever level, you can still fully enjoy tango, whether you're dancing with an old grandpa or grandma or a small child."

Hotta concluded by saying that her EMBRACE Project, "takes you back to the essence of tango: to connect and enjoy. I'm hoping we can make a more open and safe tango community where anyone can come out and dance and they can feel they are part of the tango community family."