“Strike a Pose” was an immortal line from Madonna’s hit song, “Vogue.” Now it is the name of a tender and touching documentary about the men who performed both onstage with Madonna on her 1990 Blonde Ambition tour and on screen in her 1991 documentary, “Truth or Dare.”
The tour consisted of doing five shows (each two hours long) every week with one day of travel and one day of rest for an eight-month period. That’s more than 150 shows, each featuring 18 songs. Most of the dancers performed 15 of the 18 songs, and if they weren’t onstage for a number, they were changing for the next one.
For “Strike a Pose,” six of the seven dancers — Luis Camacho, Oliver Crumes, Salim Gauwloos, Kevin Stea, Carlton Wilborn and JosÃ© Gutierez (Gabriel Trupin passed away) — were interviewed about their experiences of being plucked from obscurity to perform on a world stage. They speak eloquently and candidly in the film about “expressing themselves” while also projecting positive messages about homosexuality, gay rights and AIDS awareness. As “Strike a Pose” shows, however, some of the guys were keeping secrets. Salim, for example, reveals, decades later, that he was diagnosed as being HIV positive before the tour.
“Strike a Pose” also chronicles the perils of fame and how being connected with the then-most famous woman on the planet became a blessing and a curse. For all the opportunities that the tour’s controversy and success generated, these men had problems personally and professionally that haunted them for the next 25 years.
Salon talked with two of the six dancers featured in the film, Guiterez and Gauwloos, about their experiences being on tour with Madonna back in the day and about “Strike a Pose” now.
JosÃ©, Madonna took voguing from the underground to the mainstream. What can you say about the impact of that given the culture wars of the time and how you, as a performer, had to bear some of the responsibility of disseminating gay culture to a wider audience?
It’s weird because you don’t think about that at that time you’re in it. I was an 18-year-old kid with talent and given the opportunity to express it. I didn’t look at the political aspect of it and that it was bringing something underground to the forefront. I never set out to be a part of it. Now that I am aware, it’s amazing. To see that now, so many years later and finally be — not just accepted, but for everyone to look at me for taking this to the world — I feel so blessed.
It was harder to be openly gay back then. You were certainly a role model, even if you didn’t see yourself as one. Can you talk about that?
It wasn’t easy to be gay back then. I was fortunate. I was into wearing pride as a shield because I was young and gay and it wasn’t as accepted as it is now — and that motivated me. It was hard for a lot of kids in the community. Back then there weren’t many role models. I never set out to be one. I was so young, and just believed in something. I was being comfortable with who I was at an early age. I made a difference and was counted as a part of society. To now be looked on as an icon or a pioneer, I’m grateful. It’s unbelievable. I never set out to do that. I wish I could say I did. Maybe Madonna saw it in me before I did.
We were all [unexpected] leaders, pioneers in the age of the AIDS epidemic. I was really scared back in the day. But I still showed up and did public service announcements for Gay Men’s Health Crisis and raised money and protested. I was in it because my friends were sick from this disease and I looked up to them as heroes in the community. And if I could march and express myself, then I wanted to do that. That was the least I could do for my community.
I really like the scenes featuring you and your mother and how she is supportive but also critical of your work. Madonna is seen as a motherly figure to her boys; there is also Gabriel’s mother featured in “Strike a Pose.” What observations do you have about gay men and mother figures?
Being from where I’m from and from the Hispanic culture, we’re family oriented. I was taught that family is more than anything, so growing up and being part of the ballroom and gay community back then, it was more of a family. Kids were kicked out of their homes and that world was all they had. I had a mother who was very accepting, and because my mother was accepting, I wanted to pass that on. Going from my family into the [gay and ballroom] community, I embraced that and the House of Xtravaganza. It’s great to be a part of that.
Going on tour with Madonna and to be exposed to that job and lifestyle and everything that comes with it — it’s what dreams are made of. To work under her as a mom — we were so young and we adapted. You are so open and vulnerable at that age. We were more than just in business together. I can honestly say she gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, and I am forever grateful.
You worked with Luis [and Madonna] on your album, “Queen’s English.” Had you maintained contact with the other dancers after the tour ended? Was the big reunion in the film a surprise?
We [as the dancers] never stayed in contact, as sad as that sounds. They kept us apart in the filming [until the reunion scene]. All the stories told in the film, I never knew. While we filmed the project, we didn’t get in contact. We vowed to do it that way because we were scared; it had been so long. We wanted to reunite because it was such an impactful time for all of us. It was weird. I was hesitant to do the project — what do you say? So much has happened! You hear about them in the dance world, but I didn’t see them in 25 years. It was very emotional.
It was therapeutic meeting up with all these guys, and seeing how the seven of us moved a nation at a [particular] time and how we were part of pop culture. I didn’t know about Salim’s health scares. We are here for each other now. That bond has always been there. Going through the film it’s like we never left each other.
You are heartfelt and realistic regarding the issues you had after the tour. But you are also so proud of what you did accomplish. What are your thoughts on [the] legacy?
I didn’t have an agent or manager. I was training to be a professional dancer, and for this job [of “Blonde Ambition”], Madonna sought me out. It wasn’t what I set out to do. I started so big that when my career stalled or I experienced crisis, it was at a young age.
I didn’t do all those things that my mom had wanted for me, but look at the inspiration that I am leaving behind. As a dancer and a professional, that’s all you can ask for — to leave that inspiration and legacy behind. If nothing else, I’ve achieved that. Now it reinspires me. The inspiration I’ve given is what I’m receiving to move on and inspire another generation of dancers, activists and heroes in the gay community. I put out a body in work that went down in history. This dance, “Vogue,” with this amazing artist . . . that’s what a dancer dreams of.
I’ve been given the opportunity to live out my dreams. Yeah, I think it’s a blessing to still be able to do it and be respected. A dancer-entertainer’s career can be so short-lived. To do it and teach and be talked about and work . . . I did a project for the Netflix series, “The Get Down,” with Baz Luhrman, that inspires me to still do this for another 25 years. It’s amazing to be appreciated for something you did so early on and be looked upon as a pioneer.
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Salim, you were performing onstage, presenting and projecting attitude and style, and offstage you were hiding your HIV status. What can you say about that balancing act?
Dealing with being HIV positive at age 18, I had to go onstage and perform to escape. I worked with the gift I was given. One of my big survival skills was being able to perform and feel untouchable. Offstage I was hiding something, and that was like a performance. In those days I wasn’t ready to share it. Anything AIDS related — Madonna’s Keith Haring speech in the show — was torture for my soul. No one knew what was going on. Thank God I was a dancer. Performing was my outlet.
What observations do you have about how attitudes have changed regarding HIV in the past 25 years?
I got diagnosed in 1987 and then had to do this amazing tour. I didn’t want to come out [as HIV positive]. In 1990 the tour was such a beautiful experience, it would have been a downer. I didn’t want people to worry about me. In those days you were treated differently. Afterwards, I had to deal with it. And I was an illegal immigrant in the country, and if I went to a clinic they could [deport] me.
I didn’t deal with it until 1997 when I was in crisis. There are more outlets now for longtime survivors, but at the time you didn’t want to share a drinking glass with someone who was HIV. After I came out, I got emails all the time from people who are motivated to tell their friends about their status. But people have to come out [as HIV positive] in their own time. I am happy that people are inspired by my story and it’s tough. It’s still a taboo but much less so than in the 1980s.
The kiss you have with Gabriel in “Truth or Dare” was called “liberating” for various gay men who watched it. Did you ever think it would have such an impact?
No. Gabriel was flipped out by it. He wanted to be known as an artist because he didn’t want to be a gay advocate. I was flipped out because I had a boyfriend and I thought, He is going to kill me! I never knew it would have such an impact. . . . but it’s such a hot kiss! He was a good kisser! What’s beautiful about it now is that I’m in touch with Gabriel’s mom, Sue, and it’s comforting for us both to remember him.
There’s a “truth or dare” scene in “Strike a Pose” where you reveal your HIV status. What can you say about reuniting with all your old friends?
When I told them at the table that I was HIV positive, I looked at JosÃ©. We were inseparable on the tour. He took me to Sound Factory and showed me what being gay in America was like. I don’t think he realized how much he taught me.
You mention in the film that your life at the time was like “being in a bubble” — that after the tour, you lived in the moment for a while, partying and such, but also that you were stagnating in that your work on the tour was a blessing and a curse, trapping you for auditions and such
It was a dream job. We were so young and hungry. When do you get this much recognition? Then life jumped in. I still get jobs, but the problems people had with Madonna, that reflected back on us dancers. JosÃ©, Luis and I didn’t have agents. With Madonna, you were cut off after the tour. We did the MTV awards and AIDS benefit in L.A., but once that was done, it was a hard knock. It was life. We had to deal with it and most of us were running away at that time.
Was making “Strike a Pose” therapeutic for you?
Yeah, it was very healing. Part of my family didn’t know about my HIV status. It was time to come out with this. I have been working on this book, and then this movie came along. To start telling my story, it’s liberating, and it will explain my behavior in the past. It’s been a blessing in disguise, too, being diagnosed at an early age — that kept me from dying. I took fewer drugs.
You are seen teaching dance in the film and cuddling with a boyfriend in bed. Can you talk about your life now and how what you did made you who you are today?
I met my Argentine partner in 2000, and we’ve been married for a couple years. At first after being diagnosed, I wondered, Who’s going to love me now? He changed my life. I stopped doing drugs. I got my working papers and got my U.S. citizenship. I teach at Broadway Dance Center. Finding someone to share my life with was a big step. After people see the movie, they ask me my plans. I just go with the flow.
Do you now see yourself as a role model because of your exposure in “Strike a Pose”?
If people find something they like about me, I tell them to take it. It’s weird to be seen as a role model. I’m still searching like everyone else. I’m just a little wiser now.