By Sophia Astor
When Kanami Kusajima graduated from the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Dance—one of the county’s most prestigious dance education programs—we were in the throes of the COVID pandemic. With no classes or auditions to go to, she found the perfect place to make a name for herself: Washington Square Park.
“When I was in dance school, being in a dance company was the only goal I had,” said the 25-year-old Kusajima, who hails from Japan. “Now, I have no interest in being in one. I would much rather connect with the energy of the park, and dance for the strangers around me.”
For the past two years, Kusajima has been dancing in the park six days a week regardless of the weather. Each day, she begins her performance in the same way: she tapes a chunk of drawing paper onto the concrete, dips her hands and feet into a bowl of calligraphy ink, and uses her stained finger to scribble on a small sign. “I dance for you” she writes alongside her Instagram handle (@lethairdown) and Venmo username so she can collect contributions. Then she gets up and starts dancing, leaping and twirling around her drawing paper for hours, letting her long black hair cover her face and the ink stain her skin and clothing. Kusajima appears almost hypnotized as she creates a movement painting, oblivious to the weather and crowds bustling around her.
She got the idea of using ink and parchment from a local street painter, known as Pinokio, who she met during her early days in the park. “He moved away a while ago, but my work is still very inspired by him,” explained Kusajima. “He used many different body parts to paint and came up with his art on the spot. I improvise too, and I use my ink and movements to paint my paper as I dance.”
Kusajima’s friends say her dancing goes beyond art. “She entertains people and makes them very happy,” said Arseniy Yatsechko, Kusajima’s partner. “She is visually incredible, her movements are so dynamic that you can’t stop watching.” Others call her “the park healer,” and say her dancing has a therapeutic effect. “Some people definitely think she looks crazy out here all the time,” said Kotaro Irishio, a sometimes collaborator who plays guitar in the park, “but most people really appreciate how much peace and heart she brings.”
Kusajima’s unconventional performances have garnered a lot of attention. She’s been featured on posters for a New York City COVID recovery campaign, her paintings have been displayed in galleries, and she has been hired to dance for the clothing company Arc’teryx. But she always returns to the park.
“I chose street performance because it is accessible for all people,” said Kusajima. “Even if it’s snowing or raining and the park seems empty, I know there is at least someone who needs art and emotional healing. I need to be there even if there is only one person who needs me.”