I am old enough to have lived through the era of Madonna’s Truth or Dare film, “Vogue” video and Blond Ambition tour. Actually, I went to the Montreal stop on that tour. Those three moments in pop culture were very marking. Very important moments for the gay community around the world. A huge pop star was appropriating parts of their culture and making it popular. She was talking about and showing gay (male) life. It was the first time many saw it. Very influential. Now almost 30 years later we are reexamining all that in the surprising and moving documentary Strike a Pose by Ester Gould (A Strange Love Affair With Ego, Shout) and Reijer Zwaan (first film).
In 1990 Madonna went around the world on her most controversial tour ever, Blond Ambition. A trained dancer, dance was always a big part of any show she did. On this tour she had seven male dancers on stage with her – Luis Camacho, Oliver Crumes, Salim Gauwloos, Jose Xtravaganza, Kevin Alexander Stea, Carlton Wilborn, and Gabriel Trupin. These were the men in the “Vogue” and “Express Yourself” videos. All except for Oliver were gay. Especially after the behind-the-scenes documentary about the tour, Truth or Dare, came out they were lauded for bringing gay male culture and life out from the shadows. Young gay men now had role models. They were applauded for their courage and transparency. This documentary pulls back the curtain further and shows what was actually going on with these men.
Strike a Pose came totally out of left field for me. I learned plenty about what was going on. It was not all hearts and flowers and positivity like Truth or Dare would have you believe. These men were not all comfortable with who they were and living a completely free existence.
Each of the six remaining men is given their time in the spotlight. They tell, though interviews, their own stories. Time that is used to show where they are in life and the hardships they have gone through. Gabriel is dead (AIDS in 1995). Carlton and Salim are HIV positive. All three went into the tour knowing they were HIV and kept it from everyone – Madonna, the public and even each other. Even after Gabriel’s death the other two kept it a secret. Carlton only revealed his secret in an autobiography released a few years ago and Salim only with the release of this documentary. A secret he kept from the age of 18 until 47. The contrast of the film and tour’s message of self-expression and all the secrets that were going on is shocking. The film and tour was such an inspiration to many.
All of them were at the top of the dance world in the early 90s and almost all fell hard afterwards. Due to health issues, backlash from the dance community probably due to jealousy, drink and drug problems, and insecurity all went from the top to the bottom. A tough lesson about success and failure. Not really a natural occurrence to peak when you are 22ish. Hard to watch a group who used to have it all now be working as waiters in low end restaurants or living with their parents.
Despite all the troubles and even legal battles three of them engaged in with Madonna, they all remain rather positive about the experience. Mostly because they made deep and lifelong friendships with their fellow dancers. Oliver, who came into the tour as the only heterosexual and untrained dancer, was a total homophobe at the beginning and being with the guys demystified every fear and stereotype he had about gay men. This documentary shows that their charm is still there and what they have all lived through can still be an inspiration to today’s generation.
The film is not about Madonna, though she does hang like a specter in the background. They were brought together by her, given a platform by her and in some respects exploited by her. The documentary does not come down on one side or another (dancers v. Madonna), but you come to the understanding that the truth is usually somewhere in the middle.