Strike a Pose: Striking Some Kind of Closure with Madonna’s Blond Ambition Dancers

When Truth or Dare (aka In Bed with Madonna for those outside North America) came out in 1991, the US was decades away from legalizing gay marriage, and AIDS had claimed countless of people, most notably Liberace, Robert Mapplethorpe, Alvin Ailey, and Keith Harring (whom Madonna honored in her Blond Ambition show in New Jersey).

The documentary was hailed as progressive and exposed some countries as prudes (we’re looking at you, Italy and Canada!).

Even if you’re not a fan of Madonna, you have to admit she has helped put the spotlight onto the LGBT and POC communities, though not without sacrifices (more on that later). Six of the seven racially-diverse back-up dancers (Luis Camacho, Jose Gutierez, Carlton Wilborn, Kevin Stea, Salim Gauwloos, and Gabriel Trupin) are gay and only one is straight (Oliver Crumes);  the costumes weren’t what one would called “straight-looking” either; and the tour’s set list included hits such as “Express Yourself” and “Vogue,” the latter — and its video clip — was credited to having brought Voguing to mainstream attention.

 Voguing is a dance form created and perfected by displaced LGBT youths — mostly black and latinx — out of the Harlem ballroom scene in New York.

 

Then there was the kiss between Trupin and Gauwloos.

Gauwloos says he still receives letters about the kiss.

Truth or Dare shows a footage of Madonna’s back-up dancers watching a gay pride march, but it still feels that gay pride and HIV/AIDS are never more than just a prop in the film. Crumes’ homophobia was never addressed. There are moments when the documentary feels too much like an ego-fest — as it should, since it is about Madonna.

Cue Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan.

Ester Gould
Reijer Zwaan

Gould (A Strange Love Affair with Ego, 2015) was sixteen years old when she first saw Truth or Dare at a theater in Arnhem. “At the time, I was addicted to MTV and recall how the whole world seemed to be talking about that film,” she tells Faglandia.

Meanwhile, Zwaan saw the documentary at Bellevue Cinema, a small theater in Amsterdam that no longer exists. He was eleven years old. “When the dancers were in Amsterdam for the Dutch premiere [of Strike a Pose], they stayed in a hotel that’s very close to where that cinema used to be and I pointed it out to them [and said,] ‘[T]hat’s where I first met you guys.'”

For years, Zwaan kept the idea of making a film about the seven dancer. When he met Gould in spring 2013, she instantly loved it. By summer, they had talked to all the dancers (except for Trupin, who passed away in 1995), and they knew they had a film.

The fact that neither of the directors is American gives the documentary an edge. They confessed that being Dutch brought Strike a Pose to another direction and the razzle-dazzle of the entertainment industry is not on the map.

“We weren’t obsessed with Madonna or the whole celebrity culture, we chose a more intimate and delicate approach,” Gould and Zwaan tell Faglandia. “At the same time, we wanted the film to be a cathartic experience for a larger audience so we weren’t trying to be high-brow or arty either. Also, the Dutch have a large tradition of documentary filmmaking, which pays more attention to cinematography, compared to a lot of US and UK documentaries.”

But not all the dancers were enthusiastic at first. It took a while to convince Camacho and Gutierez. They were both worried it would just be another film with questions about Madonna. “They’ve been approached so often in the past to basically gossip about her and had no desire to go down that path again,” the directors say.

Top left to right: Salim Gauwloos, Oliver Crumes, Carlton Wilborn, Kevin Stea. Bottom left to right: Luis Camacho and Jose Gutierez. Photo by Linda Posnick.

 Luis Camacho and Jose Gutierez came from the House of Xtravaganza and they choreographed the “Vogue” video. The other dancers did not have background in Voguing.

 

About 130 hours of footage were compiled, but the movie ended up being only 83 minutes. Most of the unused clips consisted of the dancers’ childhood and upbringing, as well as interviews about the Blond Ambition and Truth or Dare era. One scene that didn’t make the cut was Camacho and Gutierez talking about the origin and essence of Voguing and explaining that it is an expressive and self-confident form of dance. The filmmakers feel that “striking a pose” is a strong metaphor for their film, “because it can be liberating – a celebration of pride – but at the same time it can become a mask, a way of hiding insecurities.”

At one point, Gould and Zwaan thought about inviting Madonna to the shoot and that she would show up in the reunion scene, when the dancers see each other for the first time in 25 years and play truth or dare during dinner. But they decided to nix the idea for fear of Madonna’s presence overpowering the dancers and the film.

“We got some pressure from financiers to include Madonna in the film, or to attack her because people love to hear dirt about celebrities,” the filmmakers say. “But we never wanted to do that, nor did the dancers. We’ve never seen it as, ‘so everything Truth or Dare suggested was a lie and therefore Madonna was lying.'”

After Truth or Dare was released, three dancers (Stea, Crumes, and Trupin) sued Madonna. She’d promised the dancers the film wouldn’t show anything they didn’t want people to see. Trupin didn’t want her to use the kiss footage between him and Gauwloos, but Madonna refused to back down.

Kevin Stea, Gabriel Trupin, Oliver Crumes

Madonna’s absence in the film was indeed for the better. It was more satisfying to see Crumes overcoming his homophobia and embracing his dance brothers. It was more rewarding to hear what Gutierez’ mom has to say about her son and his career in dance.

Sue Trupin (Gabriel Trupin’s mother) participated because she wanted her son to be represented. The filmmakers wished they had had the chance to know Gabriel Trupin, since he was a crucial part of the group (he was Madonna’s favorite, and Oliver Crumes describes him as “innocent”), but hearing about him from his mother and the other dancers made Gould and Zwaan feel like they knew him too.

There’s a heartbreaking moment in Strike a Pose when Trupin went to the Circle of Friends in the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco and lays a red flower on the engraving of her son’s name. HIV/AIDS is indeed something she’s too familiar with. She was a charge nurse at San Francisco General in the infectious disease clinic.

“It made me very aware and very scared for my son who I felt was a matter of time before he would be coming out,” Trupin says in the film.

Carlton Wilborn and Salim Gauwloos discovered they also had HIV, but none of the three dancers knew of each other’s status during the Blond Ambition tour. Wilborn came out in his book Front & Center (Treelife Publishing, 2012) while Gauwloos opened up in Strike a Pose.

Salim Gauwloos teaching a class. Still from Strike a Pose by Reinout Steenhuizen.

Gould and Zwaan describes it as a paradox. On one hand, you have Madonna and the dancers performing about expressing and protecting oneself — the documentary even shows a footage from the Blond Ambition tour of Madonna and her backup singers saying, “Don’t be silly, put a condom on your willy,” — and on the other, you have these dancers not practicing safe sex and harboring a secret.

But we also need to understand Truth or Dare was released 25 years ago. The dancers were all teenagers. Being gay or bi or trans wasn’t popular. At least not by today’s standards. HIV was still considered a death sentence, and those living with it were either pariahs or dead man walking.

“We felt it could be a film with several layers,” the filmmakers says, “a film about how hard it is to express yourself but also about coming of age — these boys had become grown men — about embracing reality, the falling apart of a family, the role of mothers and maternal figures. There was so much depth in their stories. But from the beginning we also wanted it to be a moving survival tale. It’s hard for all of us to be true to yourself but you can come out wiser and stronger in the end.”

We concur.

Strike a Pose is a gorgeous, emotionally-rich film. It captures the struggles of gay people, with or without HIV. It surpasses its mother (Truth or Dare) in terms of quality, and is definitely an essential addition to LGBT history. It stands as a brutal testament of how far we’ve evolved as a nation and a society, and yet not so much.

Faglandia gives it tens across the board.

Strike a Pose is currently being screened at select theaters in North America, including Laemmle’s Ahrya Fine Arts Movie Theater in Beverly Hills from Friday, 27 January until Thursday, 2 February 2017.  Please visit its website for more information.

Writers & Directors: Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan.
Cast: Luis Camacho, Oliver Crumes, Salim Gauwloos, Jose Gutierez, Kevin Stea, Gabriel Trupin/Sue Trupin, and Carlton Wilborn.
83 minutes. Not Rated. Released in 2016.


Featured image: Jose Gutierez by Reinout Steenhuizen.

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Yuska Lutfi Tuanakotta

Yuska came from Indonesia to the US in 2011 to pursue dance and creative writing. He has two MFAs in Creative Writing, and was a 2014 Lambda Literary Foundation Fellow. His debut nonfiction book is titled Gentlemen Prefer Asians: Tales of Gay Indonesians and Green Card Marriages.