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“She takes no shit and is someone who lifts people up”; Vestavia’s Pole Mother

Elle never says no.

She didn’t say no to quitting and selling everything she had during her senior year of college to hitchhike from Austin, Texas to California with a couple of her friends and work in a crappy, little run-down beer joint in Chula Vista.

She didn’t say no when a girl approached her in that bar and told her that she could make good money go-go dancing, telling her that all she had to do was dance and take off her top in front of a bunch of guys, which ended up being a lot of fun.

She didn’t say no to getting a unicorn tattooed on her ass.

She didn’t say no to pole dancing in her 50s to shed some excess weight, and she definitely didn’t say no to moving to Birmingham, changing her name and opening up her own pole dance studio.

“If you dare me to do something, especially if you pay for it,” she said, “I will be doing it.”

***

I met Elle in the summer of 2019 when I came into her Vestavia Hills studio after going through a rough breakup right after high school. I was pretty distraught, and my self-esteem was at an all-time low.

As soon as I met Elle, I felt like I could confide in her. She welcomed me, took my ID and had me sign a few papers that made sure that I didn’t come in under the influence of anything. She told me that I wouldn’t believe how many people come in and try to take a pole class drunk.

I told her about my breakup, and let her know that I wasn’t feeling too great about myself and that I didn’t know if I was going to stick with dancing for very long.

When I told her that my ex-boyfriend would hate it if he knew I was learning how to pole dance, she laughed and rolled her eyes.

“Oh, fuck him,” she said.

Elle wasted no time teaching me how to dance.

She would always be the one to drag a crash mat over and spot me in case I fell off of the pole, or reassure me and be there to give me a hug when I would burst into tears from sheer frustration while learning a new move.

Her kindness didn’t go unnoticed, as each and every person at the studio always referred to her as their pole mother — or even just “mom.”

Jennifer Machen, who began pole dancing in 2019, said that Elle has been an incredible mentor to her throughout her dancing journey.

“She takes no shit and is someone who lifts people up, sometimes literally,” she said, “She’s funny with a crass sense of humor, and even though she’s super critical of herself, she’s extremely talented and intelligent.”

Elle never felt the need to explain herself to anyone, either.

“I don’t need to tell my story to a bunch of 12-year-old boys who wanna giggle about strippers, fuck off with that,” she said. “And if you wanna see some strippers, we’ll go to the club, be respectful and tip well.”

Elle’s story is unique, being one of perseverance and sadness. It’s one of moves from the North to the South to the West and, finally, to Birmingham, where she plans on staying until she’s found dead on the floor of her little pole dancing studio. But for it all, she has been the only thing she can be, the only thing this fearless, spirited woman has ever been:

Herself.

Elle kindly asked me if I wanted a cup of tea, and I said yes.

She quickly stood up, walked to the very back of the studio and came back with a large and diverse arrangement of tea bags, mostly fruit-flavored, for me to choose from. I don’t remember which tea bag I chose, but it was the best cup of tea I’ve ever had, primarily because it was accompanied by good conversation and the kind warmth that always seemed to radiate from Elle.

She comfortably held her hot cup of tea between the sleeves of her soft, loose-fitting sweater, and as she began talking, I lowered my mask to occasionally take small sips from the unicorn mug full of tea that she had handed me.

Elle Camembert was born in New Orleans, but she spent a good portion of her childhood in New Jersey.

“But then my parents moved to Houston, which was a huge culture shock,” she said.

It was August when her parents had moved to Ridgewood, and Elle, now in the eighth grade, had passed out a few times from the heat, which she said probably ruined her chance to be popular at her new school.

If that wasn’t bad enough, her mother made her join the school’s swim team because she thought that Elle was a good swimmer.

“Well, I really wasn’t,” she said.

During her first swim meet, she and her teammates were gathered in a concrete pool, which wasn’t anything like the pool that Elle used to swim in when she lived in Ridgewood.

“They fired the pistol and I take off,” she said, ”and I hear everybody hollering, and I can kind of perceive that there’s no one behind me, so I’m like ‘Wow! I’m really fast! I’m winning, I’m winning!’ and then I get to the end and everybody’s yelling at me that it was a damn false start,” she said.

Elle got out of the pool all by herself, and needless to say, that was the end of her short-lived swimming career. She never went to another swim meet ever again.

“Then I lived in Texas ever since,” she said.

Her tendency to jump the gun and quickly move from one thing to another didn’t fade, though, as it followed her into adulthood and would influence many of her future decisions.

***

After another short lived career as a college student in Dallas, 21-year-old Elle decided to sell everything that she had for little to nothing in order to hitchhike with her three friends to California and stay in a little town called Del Zura, which is just south of San Diego.

There was a structure behind a little cafe called The Jailhouse, which is where the group of friends stayed.

“You’d go upstairs and you would enter this little trap door, weird as fuck, and then there’s a big room upstairs where we would stay. I don’t know if it was a jail or what, but we stayed in the Jailhouse and a couple of us worked in the cafe,” she said.

Although her friends worked in the cafe behind the Jailhouse, Elle worked in a sketchy little beer joint in downtown Chula Vista.

“It was a weird place,” she said.

One day, while Elle was working, a young go-go dancer came in and said that she had a lot of fun working at a place called Brandy’s because all you had to do was take your top off.

Since Elle didn’t like her current job and didn’t typically stay in one place for very long (blame it on her short attention span), she agreed to give it a try.

“It was fun. We drank, we danced and we took off our shirts,” she said.

There weren’t any poles at Brandy’s, though. By the time poles started showing up in clubs around the mid-to-late 80s, Elle had already been done clubbing.

Elle go-go danced for altogether less than three or four years, and after that, she came back to Texas because one of her three friends that she moved to California with was getting married.

“Stupid,” Elle said, “Anyway, she married that guy, and then later I married that guy, which is really fucking stupid. I do not recommend it: He was a dick.”

***

Elle’s life back in Texas was anything but ideal. Her friend’s ex-husband, the “dick” she had married, Michael, was later diagnosed with lung cancer and his life quickly deteriorated.

Even though she knew he couldn’t eat, Elle always prepared a large assortment of meals, which she almost always ended up binge-eating afterwards. She vividly recalls one time that Michael ate barely half of an egg and how big of an accomplishment it was for him.

“He went from the toughest son of a bitch in the world to a dead guy in a year,” she said.

Unfortunately, by the time that Michael had passed away, Elle had gained around 30 pounds from stress eating.

She decided to go to a party a while after his passing and met an old friend, Duke, who invited her to go to a roller derby rink. Shortly after, in 2013, they started dating.

“It got to be around the beginning of the next year and we were sitting around at his house and I said ‘Oh, I need to go to a gym or something, I’m all flabby and out of shape,’ and he said that there was a pole dancing studio up the street,” she said.

Again, Elle couldn’t say no and went over to the studio where she bought and used a Groupon for five classes.

She began by going to a few stretch classes that the studio offered before she tried out pole dancing.

“I went to a pole class and I cried,” she said,”I couldn’t do anything, I was bruised from ankle to hip, and everyone was at least half my age, you know? It was just horrible, but I had bought the Groupon so I had to come back.”

Elle chuckled and said that was the reason why she sells three classes at a time to new students: If you’re not hooked by the third time, pole dancing usually isn’t for you anyways.

After her third class, Elle was enamoured with pole dancing. She started thinking of what she could do with her newfound passion and decided — even though she didn’t have much experience — that she wanted to open a studio of her own.

The only problem was her mother, who still lived in Texas.

“She controlled me. I wasn’t allowed to leave Texas,” she said.

She died shortly after Elle wanted to open up her own studio, though, and when she talked to Duke about moving to Birmingham to open up her own business, he was more than happy to oblige.

”My mother left me some money. Not much, but enough to change my life,” she said.

They took a trip to Birmingham one Thanksgiving after seeing some of Duke’s family in Talladega, and when they flew back, the two had decided that Birmingham was the place that they were going to make their home nearly a year after they had started dating.

By the time she made her way to Birmingham with her boyfriend in order to open up her own studio with the money that her mother had left her, Elle changed her name.

“I never had any success in life until I changed my name,” she said,“The name my mother gave me was holding me back.”

She then told me that she wasn’t going to tell me her former name, which I understood, because I also changed my name because of a controlling parent at the age of 14.

When I told her that I had legally changed my name so that I could get my new name on my driver’s license, Elle giggled. She said that she hadn’t, because when she filled out all of the legal paperwork, she wrote down all of her information in bright pink ink, which caused her papers to be rejected.

We talked about this for a little bit, sharing our parent-related trauma with each other and laughing about it over our cups of tea.

There seemed to be a hint of sadness behind each of our laughs as we made fun of our former lives and how current family members still tend to deadname us.

Brass Ovaries, where Elle trained, is the oldest pole studio in Austin. According to her, the owner of the studio helped her a lot during her time as an emerging business owner.

“I joined a couple of groups, there was a studio owner’s group, and I went to a couple of symposiums that they put on. That really helped, I met a lot of people and I learned a lot about how to do this. I also learned that no one is getting rich doing this, which is true, but it’s so rewarding in so many ways,” she said.

Elle had initially signed a lease for her business in Avondale, but it fell through and she resorted to finding a little place in Vestavia Hills where she opened up the studio in 2017.

She said that many giggled at her idea to open up a pole studio and asked her if she was opening up a school to train strippers.

“Yeah, I’m gonna open me a stripper school in Vestavia Hills,” Elle said, laughing. “So that’s what we have.”

Elle was quite defensive about the studio and what it was meant for at first, saying that most people in the industry tend to be the same way when it comes to pole dancing.

“They say ‘It’s pole fitness, it’s not stripping!’ Well, we wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for strippers, they invented this shit. I’m not here to judge what anybody does for a living, and I’m not here to justify myself, either,” she said.

As for advertising her business, Elle didn’t need to do much. People who want to learn how to pole dance find her studio, hear about it from others or rent out the studio to have a party with their friends where they giggle and twerk on the pole.

“That’s fine, because I charge a lot of money for those parties,” she said.

Others who come to the studio are serious about training, competing and dancing and believe that it’s not only an art, but an athletic pursuit.

“We’re small, we all know each other and it’s very intimate. It’s family,” she said.

***

“I’m not really interested in explaining myself ever again. This is what we’re doing, I’m happy, the studio’s doing really well,” Elle said.

During the pandemic, Elle has practically boiled the studio everyday in order to keep things sanitized and exceptionally clean. The small studio next to the CBD shop is still booming, with new clients and full classes.

“I love it here,” she said, ”and I have not been sorry one day.”

Edited by John H. Glenn

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Made By Students from the University of Alabama at Birmingham