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.”