'strike a pose': a homage to madonna’s blonde ambition dancers

25 years later, 'Strike A Pose' reacquaints us with the seven courageous men who inspired millions to ‘express themselves’, while revealing that the message of freedom and emancipation they epitomized proved more difficult to live by.

by Michael-Oliver Harding
19 February 2016, 9:45pm

Luis Camacho, Jose Gutierez,Oliver Crumes III,Kevin Stea (1990) by Lisa Guarnieri

At the drop of a hat, any serious Madonna fan can run down the most indelible moments from Truth or Dare (or In Bed with Madonna). The highest-grossing documentary ever at the time of its release, the film details the on-and-off-stage antics of her 1990 Blond Ambition world tour. My highlight would be when the tenacious pop princess sings a cappella with her two back-up singers outside an arena, as they hold hands and strut past impassive police "in the fascist state of Toronto," after being told she'd face arrest on the grounds of not-very-virginal onstage crotch play.

Sure, the film seared into our collective consciousness those iconic Jean Paul Gaultier costumes and Madonna's oft-discussed water bottle fellatio feat. But with the luxury of hindsight, what remains most groundbreaking about Truth or Dare is the way it candidly explored and embraced young queer life. At one point, hip-hopper Oliver even complains about being the only straight performer on the tour, as her six other dancers were gay men. And in a pre-So You Think You Can Dance era when dancers mostly toiled in oblivion, Truth or Dare propelled Madonna's surrogate family of backup talents -- Salim, Gabriel, Carlton, Jose, Kevin, Luis and Oliver -- into the spotlight in an unprecedented way. While the dancers became role models of self-empowerment and success for millions worldwide, the touching new documentary Strike A Pose reveals that applying those ideals of freedom to their own lives proved far trickier.

"It's impressive to see people follow what you did and, 25 years later, still appreciate you for telling your personal side of the story and getting all emotional about it. I'm so moved by that," iconic voguer Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza tells me when we sit down with fellow dancers Kevin Stea and Salim Gauwloos for a chat at the Berlinale, where the film's world premiere elicited rapturous cheers and heartfelt Q&A testimonials the night before. Still reeling from what Kevin describes as "the overwhelming love and look of awe in people's eyes," I reckon it's just starting to dawn on them that they never stopped being role models for such a wide spectrum of fans.

Among them, Strike A Pose co-director Reijer Zwaan, a political scientist and deputy editor for a current affairs program in the Netherlands. In other words, not quite the filmmaker profile you'd expect for such a project. Zwaan agrees it's a happy departure, explaining how the guys left a big imprint on him growing up. "It stems from a personal fascination of mine with these dancers," recalls Zwaan. "I saw the film when I was 11 at an Amsterdam theater and was immediately mesmerized. I saw the film many times after that and wondered what had happened to them. I found people online writing about how they came out or dared to be themselves because of them. It certainly was inspiring to see a group of gay guys be so open, proud and cool. I remember being impressed with them, as was [co-director] Ester Gould."

Upon meeting the guys separately and being completely taken by their combination of "sweetness, strength and openness," Zwaan and Gould agreed there was a big story to tell. One that would afford the six surviving dancers (Gabriel sadly died of AIDS in 1995) a chance to speak for themselves, and open up about the inner demons that prevented them from achieving the very freedom they embodied so convincingly. "The idea of self-acceptance as being very hard for all of us, even when you are a paragon of pride, was very powerful to us," says Zwaan. "That's what connected all their stories for us."

Kevin Stea, Gabriel Trupin, Oliver Crumes III (1990) by Lisa Guarnieri

The dancers, who'd given interviews over the years that invariably devolved into Madonna gossip terrain were weary of another project that might eventually reveal its true "tell-us-what-she-was-really-like" colors. "We wanted to make a film about them, but it took a while before they actually believed us," remembers Zwaan, "because so many people have made it all about this shallow 'how does she eat', 'is she a bitch' stuff. They were really done with that."

Strike A Pose finds the dancers overcoming feelings of shame or secrets that have weighed them down. Whether it's past substance abuse, career roadblocks, alcoholism or coming out as HIV+, Zwaan and Gould excel at building a safe space where the dancers can share their stories so others may not feel so alone. Among the film's big disclosures are two men who wrestled with their HIV diagnosis for decades -- dancers who were already aware of their status going into Madonna's tour (Carlton, for instance, found out in 1985). A powerful scene finds the filmmakers revisiting a Truth or Dare segment with Salim -- when Madonna dedicates her last New York show to her (then recently deceased) friend Keith Haring, imploring the audience to face the truth together, as the Belgian dancer stands behind her. Reliving Salim's anxiety-inducing obligation to remain unflappable for the cameras out of sheer fear, at a time when "people were dropping like flies," the disconnect with the Blonde Ambition mantra to be true to yourself really hits home.

"It's so weird, even just hearing you saying it," a clearly appeased Salim tells me when I ask about the moment, uttering the letters H-I-V out loud as festivalgoers walk past us. "I've got to get used to that. Just having people around, when you say that… I mean, years ago, I would have been like, shhh! So there's freedom in that. I feel so much freer now."

All three dancers recall how earnest letters of support never stopped coming from the fans -- something they took refuge in during darker periods. "I've saved lives, I was told," says a nearly incredulous Jose. "Kids being suicidal. I mean, I'm not worthy of that, you know what I'm saying? A kid that writes you and says, 'you saved my life, your fellow dancers gave me a reason to live.' In the moments when you're struggling for a job, money or whatever, nothing could top that. That's it right there."

For the dancers, whose reunion in the documentary (and again this week at the Berlinale) marked the first time many had connected in years, Strike A Pose provided the opportunity to take stock of how much society has shifted (or not) on many fronts. The doc includes a startling clip from a trashy 1990s daytime talk show, aired shortly after the release of Truth or Dare, in which a few of the dancers are confronted to a humorless lady whose condemnation begins with "we live in a time of sexual dysfunction." While Madonna fashioned herself a poster girl for gay liberation and AIDS awareness, the guys recall how puritanical America wasn't quite ready for such in-your-face advocacy. "Isn't it crazy," wonders Salim. "I came from this sheltered little ballet school in Belgium, and upon arriving in America, I had to face the fact that everyone wanted to know who you slept with."

Among Truth's most button-pushing (by 1991 standards) scenes were the dancers shouting "we're here, we're queer, get used to it" at a New York Pride parade and the extended French kiss between Salim and Gabriel, during which she excitedly quipped, "I'm getting a hard on." "About that kiss," Salim interjects, glancing over at his fellow dancers and boyfriend with a mischievous grin, "I just really…wanted to kiss him," he says as they all erupt into boisterous laughter. "We sure saw that!" settles Jose.

While much has been accomplished on the LGBT front since Truth or Dare, Kevin is quick to offer a sobering caveat. "I was just in Mumbai, and their gay pride is fighting because being a homosexual has just been criminalized again. You go to jail for it! In this day and age, it's just ridiculous, in a huge nation like India. So even though we think we've made huge leaps forward, there's always an extreme backlash on the far right side."

As for the maternal provocateur who brought them all together, the doc briefly broaches a 1992 lawsuit Oliver, Kevin and Gabriel filed against her post-Truth or Dare, for different reasons that are finally made clear. While it's mentioned that she cut the plaintiffs loose and lost touch with the others over time, one can't help but wonder whether Madonna plans to see the film herself. Although she recently admitted to Entertainment Weekly that she couldn't bring herself to watch Truth, Zwaan is convinced she'll want to see Strike A Pose. "I'm completely certain these guys were really special to her, and not just background dancers," he reasons. "I think she wants to know about them as well. And I think once she sees it, she will be surprised. She might very well be touched, as I was." 

Top row: Salim Gauwloos, Oliver Crumes III, Carlton Wilborn, Kevin Stea; bottom row: Luis Camacho, Jose Gutierez by Linda Posnick


Photography Lisa Guarnieri and Linda Posnick

Strike a Pose