After fulfilling her dreams as a dancer and living in Los Angeles for 10 years, Natalie Catalah decided to change direction and relocate back to her home in Newcastle, bringing with her an innovative new form of dance-based exercise. She tells her story here…
Natalie Catalah has been dancing since she could barely walk, having begun her dancing career aged just two years old. Years of hard work and practise, as well as full time training at Northern Ballet School in Manchester, paid off, and Natalie was offered a position working in cruise ship entertainment.
“I had been offered a few jobs between 17 and 18 – great! – then, I had the chance to dance in cruise ship entertainment. I thought ‘yes, I’ll have that one’. I flew to San Francisco, rehearsed there for six weeks, then danced aboard ship around the Caribbean. I fell in love with the States. I sailed for about three years and more, on and off, doing solid contract initially then swing work.
“That meant I’d go on a ship, learn the show in a condensed fast capacity and cover for anyone going on vacation. I’d learn different parts at the same time. Then for a while I did choreography for the ships’ shows, working in Las Vegas. I also got to New York. Once you’re on the roller coaster as a dancer it can take you where you want to go.
“In 2004 I decided my time dancing would be running out, and I’d like to do something in the exercise world.
"I trained to be an exercise instructor. I learned pilates and chose a certifying body. Pilates’ fundamentals are very similar to dance and ballet.”
After gaining her certification, Natalie relocated to Los Angeles, and taught pilates in numerous studios, before opening her own tiny studio in the acclaimed Sherman Oaks.
But, as time went on something in Natalie changed, and in 2009 she had to make the biggest decision she had made since leaving home to board that cruise ship aged 18.
“I’d been in the States 10 years and that seemed a long time. All my family are still in the North East. My parents visited and I tried to visit home yearly, so we probably saw each other three or four times a year,” she explains. “But there were still 7,000 miles between us.”
“It was pretty daunting leaving my life and my studio that I had worked hard to establish and walk into the unknown.
“I couldn’t know for sure that it was the most practical decision or that it would work but I wanted to be back in the North East to be near my family and it seemed worth taking the chance. I was prepared to give it my best.”
And that she certainly did. With a wealth of experience running her own studio behind her, Natalie decided to apply that to her life back in the UK, while bringing something new to The Toon- Barre fitness.
Developed in the 1950s and popular amongst celebrities including Joan Collins, Britt Ekland, Barbra Streisand, Siân Phillips, Edna O’Brien and Yasmin Le Bon, Barre is a 60 minute total body workout that shares its DNA with the resistance training found in classical ballet.
“Stripping back the most effective movements to their base mechanics using short intense targeted movements to push the muscles into a fast burn before lengthening and stretching them out again –resulting in a toned, lean strong body of a dancer without the dance,” says Natalie.
“The Barre's progressive training and instructors always challenge and push the clients to their edge.”
Initially her decision was met with shock: why set up something so new in Newcastle? Why not take it to London?
“But there’s loads of enthusiasm for new things in Newcastle. You just have to let people know where it is. Once people came through the door they found it quite intriguing.”
Like any new business, The Barre needed some help getting off the ground- from spreading the word to a helping hand with finances, there was lots to be done.
Luckily for Natalie, she had a solid support network in Newcastle.
“I had some great support both from a funding perspective and also coaching support from Business Link, from writing a fully comprehensive business plan, to providing funding which helped get our first website set up.”
Natalie was also backed by an angel investor, who read the business plan and liked what he saw.
“I did networking events and happened upon the idea of angel investment,” she says. “The original plan would have been a bank loan, although not very hopeful at the time due to the recession.”
However her angel loaned the original investment and the studio was born. Now all Natalie had to do was find her clients.
“It was tough, and still is tough sometimes to describe what The Barre is. The goal was to get people through the door to try it so we did flyer drops; we had rollerbladers flyer the entire city centre and all of the nearby businesses.
“We offered free classes, discounts and a referral program, which we still operate to this day and it is still our best promotion tool!
“We also did print advertisement and had some media coverage in the local papers. Our Facebook and Twitter platforms were set up early on and our website did a lot of talking for us.”
Her little studio opened its doors on July 4 2009.
Next on her list was finding staff- bringing a unique regime to the city had its perks, but there was also the difficult task of finding people trained in the art.
“In the beginning I had a lot of family support! I taught all of the classes on the schedule and it was like that for almost the entire first year of business.
“Luckily a couple of dancer friends were ready to hang up their shoes and were looking for something different with a bit of a challenge, I roped them in and started training them. Six months later there were three instructors at The Barre!”
Natalie has now been successfully helping the people of Newcastle shape up and stay strong for eight years, and says it has been a huge learning experience for her.
“It has been a journey I would not exchange. Mistakes, bad decisions, good decisions, all the ups and downs have created such a foundation of who I am as a business owner and entrepreneur.
“It’s made such an impact and taught me to understand the balance between my job, who am I as a professional, and my personal life.”
But Natalie does offer a word of warning: “No matter how much time you put into preparing contingency plans for every possible outcome there will always be the feeling that sometimes you just can’t control how things happen.
“You simply can’t foresee every possible outcome and just have to have faith in yourself and your business that you’ll be able to weather whatever storm comes your way.”
Despite all of her successes, for Natalie, the people that make the business are the best thing about it- from the clients who attend classes, to her team of instructors who help make the cogs turn.
“The studio doesn’t belong to me, it is their space and has become its own entity complete with a variety of critical assets including people, its own personality, and energy. To see this working as its own ecosystem is my favourite part of The Barre,” she says.
With such a hectic schedule, every day is a new day. The future of The Barre changes on a daily basis: “Flexibility and the ability to recognise and take advantage of opportunities are critical skills for me to have and the future of The Barre is based on how it evolves as a business.”
Taking a leap of faith is never easy, but as Natalie has proven, the landing can be well worth the jump.
“Ask yourself what is it going to take for you to pull the trigger so that you are no longer an aspiring entrepreneur but instead an entrepreneur. And then go after whatever that answer is,” she advises.
“Spend an enormous amount of time preparing, but when you’re ready; commit like you’ve never committed before in your life. And be ready to work harder than ever before.”