The Central Park Ballerina

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:15

How hopes for a career in dance turned into posing for tourists on a box in the park

By Steven Maginnis

Therisa Barber-Shaw came to New York from England hoping to make it big on Broadway. Instead, she's become a hit on a small plastic box in Central Park.

The classically trained dancer performs in the park as a living ballet statue on the box, dancing momentarily when someone drops money in her collection bucket. "You don't always get to plan your life," she explains. "Sometimes you give things a shot, and it sends you in a different direction."

Growing up in Kent, England, Barber-Shaw became interested in dance at age five, when her mother took her to the Royal Ballet in London. She instantly fell in love with the art, and she started taking lessons almost immediately. "There was a point," she says, "where I almost gave up, but my mum knew me better than I knew myself, and she made me stick at it." Barber-Shaw spent two years studying dance at the esteemed London Studio Centre, appeared in a royal gala performance at London's Royalty Theatre, then worked as a dancer and choreographer on cruise ships.

By the year 2000, Barber-Shaw was in New York, but things didn't work out so well. Despite an affiliation with Geoffrey Doig-Marx's Mantis Project Dance Company and a stint as a teacher's assistant at the Broadway Dance Center, she was unable to get sponsorship or broaden her professional experience. After four years as a waitress, she sold calendars for a statue mime performing at Columbus Circle, which bored her. The mime suggested that she use her performing skills by working as a living statue herself. "I said, 'I came here to dance on a big stage, not be a street performer!'" she remembers. "He said, 'It's still art, you'd still be performing.' As much as I fought him, he kept encouraging me. And I saw how much money he was making, and I thought, 'Maybe I can do this.'"

Barber-Shaw first performed in Times Square in the fall of 2004, and the experience was a disaster. She struggled to balance herself on her box, her eyes watered from trying not to blink, and the relentless street noise hindered her concentration. Her companion from Columbus Circle, having watched her, complimented her for a pretty good first effort, but she was far from satisfied. Later that day, she found a quieter place, next to the Waldo Hutchins memorial bench in Central Park off the corner of East 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue. While quieter than West 42nd Street, the location proved to be a well-traveled footpath, and she attracted attention and money. "From a bank account of zero," she says, "I had my rent money by the end of the weekend." She has been performing in Central Park ever since. A typical workday means standing silently en pointe on her box dressed in a white tutu, appearing as if she were about to begin a ballet. With her wavy hair hidden under a headpiece and her face masked in white makeup, she looks like a Degas sculpture. The brief dance she performs when she receives money may be simple or elaborate; children receive a blown kiss for good measure. Standing still on her toes takes much concentration. Once she assumes her pose, she focuses on a spot on the pavement to avoid blinking as she tunes out everything else. "The first 20 minutes are the hardest," she says, "but after that, I'm off; I'm in my rhythm." While on her box, her mind may wander from contemplating her choreography to what she'll have for dinner later. Barber-Shaw performs for up to four hours at a time; the pressure on her toes pain and tire her feet as she maintains her balance. To look lifeless, she breathes shallowly by using her lower back and stomach muscles. When she dances repeatedly through a steady stream of tips, though, it can be difficult to resume a shallow breathing pattern. After four straight days, Barber-Shaw usually needs a few days off to rest and enjoy some time off. "I don't need to exercise," she boasts. "This job keeps me in shape." She finds her art rewarding, though, in ways that go beyond money. Her ability to suddenly dance with such beauty after being stationary for so long has a mysterious quality about it. "I think the thing that really gets people about my work is the standing still," she muses. "It's nice to have the pointe work as well, to make it like a living doll. It's unusual for people to see pointe shoes up close. Even after I've moved, some children still don't comprehend that I'm real. So there's really a magical element to what I do."

Her work does have drawbacks. Her schedule is contingent on the weather; she has to be ready to work in the park on a moment's notice if the day turns out to be sunny, and she can't make any plans unless she's certain that rain will prevent her from performing on a given day. The conditions of the seasons also affect her. Autumn provides ideally cool, dry weather to perform in, while winter forces her to work in subway stations. Spring produces allergies that cause Barber-Shaw's eyes to run, but the baby powder on her makeup conceals her tearing. Summer humidity causes her pointe shoes to fit imperfectly, and the money comes less easily with more people away.

The abuse from some people is infinitely worse. One time in the subway a man touched the back of her neck, which felt like an electric shock to her after having stood still for so long immersed in her thoughts. Another time in Central Park, a group of children overturned her tip bucket, forcing her to break character and demand that they go elsewhere. The transit police have repeatedly disrupted her act in the subway, though the police in the park have been relatively more supportive. Many people still say rude things to her to get her to break character, but she's become a natural at ignoring them. "You just have to blank them out," she says. "The longer you do it, the easier it gets. Usually these people will get bored and leave. I stick it out longer than they do."

While she continues to pursue dancing, she's also now a certified health coach; she runs Nutritious Harmony, which helps clients maintain their ideal weight, eat better foods, and reduce their cravings, and increase their energy levels to feel better about their well-being. She hasn't turned away from dance, though, and she has also continued to pursuing acting opportunities.

Could all of her efforts as a performer lead to the big career she hoped for when she arrived in America? Barber-Shaw is philosophical about the future. "I live in the moment. Tomorrow hasn't happened, so I'm not going to worry about it. As long as I'm making good money and I'm in good shape, I'll carry on doing my act."