Two of the most iconic documentaries about dance are about to leave Netflix in a few days. Paris is Burning and Madonna: Truth or Dare will be removed from the Netflix library on June 1st. In actuality, Paris is Burning and Truth or Dare are iconic because they are about more than dance. Both of these films chronicled an aspect of LGBTQ life and culture seldom seen prior to that time. That of gay men and transgender women who lived lives filled with joy and friendship even in the face of great difficulties and hardships. Still, Paris is Burning was one of the first movies to also gave us a stark depiction of the threat of violence that loom constant for many transgender women of color. A type and level of danger that does not intersect with any other social group.
Both films brought to the fore the underground club dance genre of Voguing. It is a genre that continues to thrive and evolve. Paris is Burning and Truth or Dare, though relatively modest films, both stand tall in the canon of movies about LGBTQ culture, dance history, and American history. Like Jazz, Voguing is an art form that originated in America in very similar circumstances though in very different eras. This Memorial Day weekend, hopefully true dance lovers will take a break from the beach and the barbecue and take in one or both of these two important (and downright entertaining) films before they are removed from Netflix.
In a sparkling new, sun-drenched dance studio just off the Gates Avenue stop of the J train in Brooklyn Dwana Smallwood leads a class of eager pre-teens, or “tweens” if you will, in putting together what will be a modern-dance routine. Smallwood uses different methods to connect with the various girls. Joking around, poking fun, literally getting down to eye level- whatever she must do to both communicate her own vision as well as draw out the girls’ personalities. If there is anything that illustrates the power and far-reaching effects of certain decisions, this is it.
At the tail end of her twelve year turn as principal dancer of the renowned Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, Smallwood agreed to appear in a 2007 issue of Vogue magazine celebrating those who were at the top of their professions. Producers at the The Oprah Winfrey Show saw the issue and asked her to come on the show. Smallwood made the decision to do so and performed Ailey’s masterpiece inspired by and dedicated to his mother, “Cry”. For anyone to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show, it must be unarguably an exhilarating experience. For Smallwood, it was a singular experience in its own way. She says, “ After being on the show I kept thinking, how many people have I ever seen on television that looked like me? Dark skin, no hair, barefoot, modern dance, all of it. I searched and I looked and I don’t remember ever seeing that image. And I said, what this did for so many young people. So I wrote her a thank you letter.”
That thank you letter led to a request from Oprah that Smallwood lead a one-week workshop at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. Smallwood agreed and recalls, “I did a workshop for a week. I taught all 320 kids. I sewed costumes. In one week I choreographed two pieces and a little presentation at the end. After that week she asked if I would come back and stay. And so that year turned into two years and that turned into ‘I can’t leave’ and that turned into ‘I’m not talking to you until the first graduating class leaves.’” Smallwood indeed ended up staying there from 2009 through 2013. In that time, she taught, developed the dance program, and went on to help direct other vital aspects of the administration and curriculum at the school.
While teaching there, she “learned how to give myself for real. I saw huge transformations in young women who had gone through far too many atrocities.” The program was also exceedingly beneficial to Smallwood in other ways. “It was rewarding and then some because [Oprah] believed in all the gifts I had. I wasn’t just a dancer, I was a businesswoman. I was an organizer- a leader. I was so many things.” The experience rekindled something in Smallwood; a mere spark flickering at the back of her mind.” She says that, “I always knew I wanted to have something that dealt with young women. I wanted a facility. I wanted it to be a home.” She fleetingly considered opening a facility back in her hometown of Brooklyn in Bedford Stuyvesant, where she was raised. Still, the idea remained just a spark until Oprah herself fanned the flame. Winfrey asked Smallwood if she wanted to open her own dance school and offered to help fund its development. At first Smallwood hesitated. The turning point came after she read yet another “District Needs Report” revealing the dearth of cultural institutions in the Bedford Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn. She explains that the district needs report is basically a document the local government puts together “that they send to the city and state to say, ‘this is what our area needs’”. It seemed as if every year, the same needs were listed but nothing was ever done about it. At least not for Bed-Stuy. She says, “I looked at Fort Greene, I’m like you’re gonna saturate that area with six, seven, eight centers and facilities? And so what about us? Don’t we deserve beautiful facilities? Don’t we deserve art spaces and places for our children and the artists who are coming out of Bed-Stuy?” Smallwood made another decision. The Dwana Smallwood Performing Arts Center opened its doors in early 2014 in Bedford Stuyvesant.
DSPAC offers classes such as Ballet, Salsa, Gyrokinesis, Afro-Yoga, Modern, Tap, Hip-Hop and an interesting class called “Gumboot”, imported from South Africa. The school website describes it as, “An exciting workout, filled with rapid footwork, pulsating rhythms, and vocal expression. Learn the foot-stomping, boot-slapping dance of the South African miners, men and women who created the world-popular Gumboot dance in the gold mines of South Africa.”. There are programs for younger children and teens, where scholarships are available based on need. There are also classes that are open to adults such as adult beginner Ballet. The center also has a reading program centered around its rapidly growing library- a focal point in the cozy reception area. Smallwood explains that, “we have a reading program where kids read out loud to the young children. And it’s all relevant to dance. It’s so nice to see the kids when they come in early will go to the shelf and pull out a book. I need them to exercise both sides of the brain. You have a thinking side, you have the artistic side, let’s put it all together and become thinking artists. Artists that go after degrees or have PhD’s.” No doubt also artists who also make decisions that impact the world.
This originally appeared in New York Amsterdam News
Chemistry is everything. In the now classic concert film Truth or Dare, Madonna proved she was savvy enough, even at the relatively young age of thirty-two to put together and successfully lead a team of dancers who would perform with her during her iconic Blonde Ambition tour. One of the films that screened at the at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, Strike A Pose, pulls the curtain back on the Blonde Ambition tour and Truth or Dare and gives us a three dimensional look at the backup dancers who helped Madonna’s star to rise even more. Madonna and those dancers brought to the fore many of the dance genres from the underground dance scene of that era of which Voguing became the most prominent in the public consciousness. What emerges from the documentary is that a certain fellowship or brotherhood formed between the dancers. The type of bond that is usually the result of people going through larger than life experiences together.
As one of the documentary’s directors Reijer Swaan described in a recent roundtable discussion, Strike A Pose is, “Like a ‘where are they now’ because they impacted so many people.” The film is a revisiting and a reunion. It carries the audience twenty-five years back in time to the spectacle of the Blonde Ambition tour and the eye-opening and titillating Truth or Dare documentary. A time when Madonna’s star was at its zenith and the public’s attitude toward homosexuality was much, much less enlightened than they are today. One of the implicit arguments at the heart of Strike a Pose is that the seven dancers as well as Madonna herself unwittingly took on the burden of challenging the public to see the world in which they lived in all its glorious diversity- racial as well as with regard to gender and sexual orientation. All of the dancers were men of color and all except one, Oliver Crumes were gay. Ironically though, Crumes was and still is the most flamboyant of the bunch. Though his hair is no longer platinum blonde, he sports striking silver framed sunglasses and shows off his vast sneaker collection (which includes pink Adidas) in Strike A Pose. If one were going to choose ambassadors to spread this particular message, Madonna had the enviable ability to choose just the right group of people who were both attractive enough on the outside and charismatic enough to change attitudes and inspire courage by seemingly simply being themselves. She also had the discipline and will to lead a group of extremely young, extremely attractive, extremely talented men. Luis explains that, “She led by example. We had her at the time she was going from rubber bracelets and lace skirts to couture costumes from Gaultier so her focus was laser sharp so we took that on as well. I mean we wanted a fantastic product as much as she did. Did we kind of get that from her? Yes, because she led by example.”
Kevin Stea, Luis Camacho, Oliver Crumes, Salim Gauwloos, Carlton Wilborn, and Jose Xtravaganza charm the viewer in Strike a Pose the same way that they did in Truth or Dare albeit with the gravitas that comes with age and experience. “There’s a real depth and seriousness about who we are that it’s really nice to to feel people acknowledge that.” Wilborn explained about the newest documentary. Noticeably missing is Gabriel Trupin, one half of the couple who performed THE KISS in Truth or Dare. He passed away in 1995. The dancers also acknowledge that Madonna was unique in allowing them to shine as dancers in a world where despite the amount of time, effort, and discipline that dancers put in and the value that they add to productions, they are almost invariably shunted into the background. Camacho speculated that Madonna “was not that insecure. I think that a lot of artists don’t do that because of their insecurities but she just focused on picking good talent and putting it all together.” They all credit Strike a Pose with carrying on that theme of celebrating dancers although the directors readily acknowledge that was not their primary intent. Said Wilborn, “This is making a big statement for dancers and dance. I’m a dancer and I’ve been waiting to hear stories of dancers.”
For Strike a Pose’s Dutch directors Ester Gould and Reija Swaan and many who viewed Truth or Dare so many years ago, Truth or Dare represented something else as well. Reija explains “The film showed you could be gay and happy” at at time when media tended to pathologize homosexuality itself and depict homosexuals as tortured souls. “Here they were having fun and being themselves.” But Strike a Pose also highlights the fact that enlightenment comes in stages and is an imperfect and somewhat fraught process; especially for those without the type of power that someone like Madonna has. Truth or Dare positioned these men as having transcended the shame about their sexuality that society put on them but that was in fact not the full truth. Although Luis, Jose, and Carlton had been out and proud for some time, Strike A Pose reveals that one of the most famous scenes in Truth or Dare (when they are in fact playing the game Truth or Dare) where the dancers Gabriel Trupin and Salim “Slam” Gauwloos french kiss, Trupin felt coerced into doing it and was unaware it would be used in the widely released film. Trupin’s mother appears in the Strike a Pose and sadly tells the audience “he wasn’t ready to come out to the world as a gay man.” Gauwloos at the time was out but still not fully comfortable with such a public display since his father remained disapproving. Trupin, Crumes and Stea sued Madonna in 1992 for invasion of privacy saying they did not give permission to shoot the off-stage scenes. Strike A Pose reveals Trupin was not the only one with something to hide and that his sexuality wasn’t the only thing bothering him. It turns out that he and two other dancers were also HIV positive although no one knew at the time. Carlton Wilborn was one of them and eventually disclosed his HIV status. Salim Gauwloos’ HIV status was actually disclosed for the very first time during the making of Strike a Pose after his keeping it a secret from everyone except his mother for over twenty-five years. Said Gauwloos, “Me coming out about my HIV status it feels liberating and I always wanted to do it but it was never the right time and Reija and Ester came along and it was the right time to do it and to hopefully inspire again more people.” For Wilborn disclosing in so public a manner as a documentary film has been a blessing. He explains, “What’s amazing about this right now is for myself the irony because I was also diagnosed in 1985, that the thing I thought I needed to keep secret and wouldn’t allow me to have a rich and prosperous life is exactly the communication that’s allowing me to soar in my career because of what Ester and Reijer have created; bigger than I ever had before. We think we’re crippled by whatever. The way that they have presented us, celebrates us because of that.”