Interview with Cathy Chamberlain

Cathy Chamberlain is the owner and artistic director of Chamberlain School of Ballet in Plano, TX.

What inspired you to open your own dance studio?

Cathy: What inspired me was, I was teaching at the school where I trained as a child and going from being a student into more of a faculty member and observing how they would instruct us on how to instruct and interact with particular children. I honestly felt it was a very unhealthy environment. If they didn’t think someone was going to be a dancer they would say, “just ignore them. They’re not going to do anything.” And the ones that they did think had potential to be dancers they would do a lot of head games. There would be a lot of eating disorders and what I thought was very self destructive, and I saw it a lot in my peers. I started teaching for them when I was 18. In high school I trained at the School of American Ballet, was offered to be a winter student my junior and senior year and I declined that. Then I got out of dance for a year, and then I thought I would go audition for a dance university program, so I wanted to go back and get in shape. They needed a sub so then they asked me if I would sub, I said yes. I graduated midterm, they offered me a job, so I started just teaching. I taught there basically that first year as a sub and then a new hire and the second year as a permanent faculty member. It was really during the second year that I started seeing what I really thought was unhealthy. Then I was 20 and I just thought, “I’ve got to get out of here.” So I spoke to my parents and my Dad said, “come up with a business plan” and that he would finance me, and that all happened in two weeks.

So you do believe in a business plan for any arts venture?

Cathy: Absolutely, because if you don’t have a business plan then you have no direction, no point of reference, and you need to be able to sustain the artistic endeavor.

What do you believe are the necessary qualities for an entrepreneur in the arts to possess or develop?

Cathy: They have to be willing to take risks. For me that’s the biggest thing, because if someone’s not willing to take a risk, to me they’re not an entrepreneur.

What are some of the challenges you encountered when building you’re business?

Cathy: The greatest challenge would be (and it goes back to the business plan) cash flow and because it’s a school a lot of it is tuition income that comes in to pay the bills which would be the rent, utilities, insurance, advertising, marketing, faculty, staff. And so what’s really tough is if you’re working and your business net profit is pretty lean and you encounter a sudden down turn in the economy and you don’t have cash reserves built up and you do not have good credit then it’s very difficult to go to the bank to borrow money to help you establish a line of credit, so what you need to do is, even though you want to take a risk, you don’t want to be financially irresponsible. You want to be able to place some money in a cash reserves. For example the crash with 9/11, showed decline and that was 2000. Then with the 2008 mortgage industry, that was huge as well.

What would you say is the biggest reward of owning your own business?

Cathy: Job security. A lot of times, especially with a business, I’ll see families come in and they’re devastated because somebody has been laid off, and I’ve had so many families say to me “you’re so lucky that you own your own business.”

What three pieces of advice would you give to a young entrepreneur trying to enter the market?

Cathy: Number one, determine if you want your arts venture to be a for-profit which is for example my school is my business so my school is my for-profit, or do you want your organization to be a not-for-profit which then is governed by a board of directors and some trustees? So, you need to be very willing to work with other people, to have other people have some of the control and decision making. And with a non-profit type of organization you always run the risk if you’re the director that you can have a board that comes in a says “you know, I have someone who I think would do a better job than our current director.” So that’s the risk, and I’ve seen that happen a lot as well throughout the industry. There are pros and cons. Another piece of advice is, visit with as many people as you can about their organizations and ask these kinds of questions.

Interview by Emily Bernet, SMU student.

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