Natalie Catlah has left ballet and the USA to give local initiative to a demanding new discipline for fitness. She explains how it came about to Brian Nicholls.
We can’t all match the elegance and apparent ease of the ballet dancer. The ease for one thing is illusionary in that it is both exacting and demanding. But through Natalie Catlah’s enterprise we can, female or male, adopt some ballet skills of movement to achieve fitness satisfyingly.
Natalie, a former professional ballet dancer herself, brings this opportunity through The Barre, her fitness studios with a difference at The Close beside Quayside in Newcastle. The very name gives the show away, the barre being the hip-high rail used for ballet rehearsal and leg exercises. And it’s an opportunity that a growing number of exercise seekers are taking to.
As she explains in her gentle Geordie-cum-Californian accent: “Our Barre regime is indeed ballet barre based fitness. Essentially it comes from classical ballet. We strip back the classical movements to the muscle mechanics. It’s really about controlling the core of your body then strengthening muscles, aligning and stabilising the body. Yes, ballet is punitive. But stripping back makes it easy for others, though I’ve got to say it’s not that much dumbed down!
“It is tough initially, absolutely, for anyone who has never been to dancing classes. The movements are very small and look nothing. But it’s by no means an easy workout. A lot of strength, control and precision are required. Ballet is made to look easy but so much goes on behind its scenes. It’s the same here.”
Natalie, a dancer since she was two years old, has a studio membership whose ages range from 16 to 67. “We have clients who have been with us since I set up the business seven years ago, and they will have done over 1,000 classes with us now.”
There are several levels of exercise. At the first barre everyone is taught basics. “From there,” she explains, “we progress everyone. It’s a very intelligent workout. You learn lots about your body and its alignment – where for example you will feel tight and where you can leverage from body weight to length in a muscle group, strengthen a muscle group, and work your core muscles.
“You end up with the same control as a ballet dancer. So you can lift your legs and hold them out. You find strength to hold a position that’s uncomfortable yet you look in control – and are. Your body gains dense, lean muscle. They can be shaped and toned whatever their shape and size, and however old or young you may be. You gain posture and grip through your core giving that lift, and you find control to move your body with both mobility and ability.”
In the progress from one level to the next the regime remains disciplined, like a ballet class. “So you gain muscle memory,” Natalie says. “You can work on control of the movement. The more precise your movement, the more effective it is. Beyond first barre, open barre is a little faster. Mixed levels of members work out together and the class environment gives you drive to push on, even to chivvy if you have comrades with you.
“From second to third barre the challenge grows, requiring more precision, more control. By third barre we are doing endurance based power classes. We do express classes, like a 30 minute punch in the face, particularly for core and power muscles like the thighs. You work your programme round what your body requires. Participants gain strength and also knowledge of their body’s requirements. They can tailor their own workout as they become more familiar with it.”
Are many who have never danced ever disheartened even by challenges of the first barre? “It is usually challenging, and it’s learning this basic format that takes you up to the next level. But I think there is confidence to be had from knowing everyone can achieve it. It’s a matter of convincing them they too can join others before who have gained the capabilities though they had never before danced a step.
“When you take ballet lessons as a child you don’t know what a first position is. You don’t know what it’s like to rotate at your hips or how to hold a leg in the air. So it doesn’t really matter whether you learn this at the age of seven or at 47. The discipline and learning curve is the same.
“A lot of achievement comes through the rapport of a class environment. Our instructors know the ins and outs of every intricate part of the workout. It’s very safe, non impact. We don’t push into the joints. We don’t jump. There’s no turning or twisting. It’s really to do with stabilising and controlling the body.”
First barre class never comprises more than 10 people. Even later the largest class comprises 18 at most. “Everyone soon gets to know everybody. It’s all super friendly, with everyone hugely encouraging for each other,” Natalie says. And whereas those ancient Greek chaps lingered in their gymnasia eight hours a day doing only the gods know what, members here come and go as they please. Some do visit daily. Starting out, the regime requires muscle memory a couple of times a week. But later once a fortnight or a month suffices, and no workout runs beyond 60 minutes.
Natalie, then, was dancing “baby ballet” even before she went to infant and junior school in Jarrow. By the age of 10 she had maybe one evening a week when she wasn’t in a dance class, and on Saturdays danced all day.
At the Kathleen Burden School of Ballet in South Shields initially, she did tap dance, jazz and modern dance, and trained also with Adrian Carthew, also in South Shields. “It’s all consuming once you’re into it,” she agrees.
She stepped into the “big” ballet class at about six (Royal Academy of Dance), which was when her dancing became much more serious, more disciplined. As an associate of the ballet school she would find her whole life built around dance. To become a professional dancer eventually she had to endure many auditions at various ballet schools.
At 16 she left home to undergo full time vocational training at Northern Ballet School in Manchester, where she made new friends. “We had student accommodation but were fully responsible for ourselves,” she recalls. “You learned pretty fast how to take care of yourself. Everyone was focused on the dance. Every morning we got on the bus to get into school for 8.30. We’d start warm-up then dance all day till about six.” That to her was bliss, though it went on six days a week with only Sunday their day of rest.
At 17: near heartbreak. “I tore my Achilles tendon, my first ever major injury. I was introduced to the pilates fitness system not very common then. I did a lot of rehab with the help of my physio and had a lot of treatment, trying at the same time to keep my strength throughout my body. It was the first time I’d ever done any holistic exercising other than dance. By the time I recovered and graduated at 18 I had not lost too much ground against the rest of my year. So I auditioned with everyone else.
“I had been offered a few jobs between 17 and 18 – great! – then 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.”
With her certification she moved to Los Angeles and taught in numerous studios. Then, in 2006, she opened her own tiny studio with her own equipment, teaching clients privately on the remarkable Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. Ventura Boulevard, a primary thoroughfare, is the world’s longest avenue of contiguous business, running 18 miles through San Fernando Valley. It’s a shopping and recreational destination for celebrities, executives, athletes, and entertainers with wherewithal to buy homes for anything from US$2m to US$50m.
Come 2009 it was farewell, Ventura Boulevard, and hello again, South Shields. A hard decision to make? “It was. But I think it was time. 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. But there were still 7,000 miles between us.
“I didn’t really know what to do on return other than set up a studio. That seemed the only option, what I had experience in, and I was into barre based fitness as a method – the Lotte Berk method.”
The late Lotte Berk was a remarkable ballet dancer and teacher who fled Nazi Germany in 1930 and later danced at Covent Garden for Marie Rambert. Her exercise method focused on building ‘core stability’.
In the 1950s, with an osteopath’s help, she developed a series of exercises similar to pilates and yoga, but concentrating on targeting specific areas for strength and flexibility training. Her exercises had eccentric names such as ‘the Prostitute’, ‘the Peeing Dog’ and the ‘French Lavatory’ but her client list nevertheless included Joan Collins, Britt Ekland, Barbra Streisand, Siân Phillips, Edna O’Brien and Yasmin Le Bon.
She had been popular in Los Angeles, Natalie points out, because Los Angeles folk love anything new, and Lotte’s 1960s concept of stripping back complexities of dance for the benefit of everyone, using a barre or even a chair, had been new.
It appealed to Natalie. “I’d started working on a regime, so to bring it back to Tyneside was novel. Nobody was doing barre based fitness here. People willing to try gave it an immediate response. Some said to me ‘why set up in Newcastle - shouldn’t you be doing it in London?’ People in London, they suggested, are more responsive.
“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. Being able to control your body becomes very addictive.”
Having already run a business in the USA, Natalie sat down and wrote a business plan to serve a customer base in the North East of England. She attended business networking events and breakfasts and, she says, had a great advisor through Business Link, which she found hugely supportive.
“At a business breakfast networking event I listened to a lecture and spoke with different people. One person there asked to see my business plan. That was it. An angel investment. We did it on a shoestring in a small and controlled environment to test it out.”
The total investment initially, including the barres which are hard to come by, was £30,000 but it proved possible to keep £7,000 in reserve to buffer the business through its first year as it grew. Dance students from Newcastle College took part in test classes beforehand, and free classes were held. Word of mouth did much of the rest.
“To this day most marketing comes from word of mouth,” she says. She now has three business partners, and two years ago she relocated the business from behind the Central Station down the bank to the modern glass-fronted premises at the riverside. There three instructors (soon to be four) and four backroom staff engender a whole new social mix: business people, office workers, mothers calling in before collecting children from school among them.
And no doubt being kept on their toes!
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