In the 1991 movie Madonna: Truth or Dare, the titular superstar plays the role of her lifetime: herself. Filmed during her 1990 Blond Ambition tour when the then-31-year-old pop star was at her commercial peak, the Alek Keshishian-directed concert film/backstage documentary finds Madonna reveling in the cult of her personality. “She doesn’t want to live off-camera, much less talk,” her then-boyfriend Warren Beatty remarks in one scene, delivering a perfect capsule review. Seemingly baring all, at least in terms of her personality’s facets, she is unafraid to come off as a demanding asshole, just as often as she promotes the idea that she’s the nurturing mother in the “family” of employees that support her.
My worship of Madonna was why, at age 12, I bought a ticket to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and attempted to sneak into the theater playing Truth or Dare. Management found me and forced me to sit through Kevin Costner’s other bland performance of 1991 (he briefly appears in Truth or Dare to declare the Blond Ambition Tour “neat”). Madonna’s the hook that got me into the movie, but when I finally saw the movie after it came out on video, the depiction of her dancers left a richer impression on my young mind. Truth or Dare was my first exposure to a group of openly gay men merely existing. They hang out backstage, they bond, they gossip, they laugh, and at one point, during a climactic game of “truth or dare,” two of them make out on a dare.
Now when those same guys play “truth or dare,” they almost always choose truth. Or at least, that’s how it goes during the climax of Strike a Pose, a documentary currently playing the Tribeca Film Festival that turns cameras back on the surviving members of the troupe over 25 years after Madonna and Keshishian did.
Strike a Pose is far less a daring documentary than Truth or Dare was, thanks in part to social progress: It’s easier, in 2016, to access stories of gay men (as five out of six of them are) than it was in 1991. Gay identity alone rarely has the power to shock the masses that it once did. So whereas Madonna was “pushing buttons,” as dancer Kevin Stea puts it, with matter-of-fact depictions of gay men in the early ‘90s, European filmmakers Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan are providing a platform in their affirming Strike a Pose. Separately, the men and the mother of Gabriel Trupin (who died of AIDS in 1995), discuss their lives after Madonna, including their continued commitment to dance as well as hardships they’ve faced like addiction, homelessness, and HIV.
Gould and Zwaan’s pledged gentler approach helped sway initially resistant members of the troupe, like Luis Camacho, to get back in front of the camera. That said, it’s somewhat surprising to see Stea and Oliver Crumes (the lone straight guy) show up. They along with Trupin, sued Madonna in 1992 for invasion of privacy, among things, and eventually settled out of court. Trupin specifically accused charged Madonna in the suit with “exposing his sexual orientation,” before he was openly gay. Assured by Gould and Zwaan’s “humanist” angle, Stea said he had no such concerns this time around. He points his lawsuit boiled down to a contractual dispute. He was, after all, hired as a dancer first, not a documentary subject.
The means by which the Blond Ambition dancers made it to the big screen make them unique specimens. Unlike the aspiring reality star whose end game is to appear on camera, so receives little public pity in the event that he is ridiculed (because it is what he “signed up for”), being portrayed as intimately as the dancers were in Truth or Dare was beside the point of their connection to Madonna. That Truth or Dare was essentially supplemental to the Blond Ambition Tour, though, didn’t matter in academic criticism that accused Madonna of exploiting her dancers’ identities for her own gain.
Twenty five years later, her dancers break out into a mild furor when I introduce this idea to them by reading passages from bell hooks’s essay “Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?” from her book Black Looks: Race and Representation. All nine of us—the six surviving dancers, the two directors, and I—are sitting at a giant round table during a junket at the Smyth Hotel in lower Manhattan. I feel the air thicken as I convey hooks’s view of their degradation. Jose Guitierez, Father of the House of Xtravaganza, one of the longest existing “houses” in New York’s ballroom scene, has tuned out entirely, not looking up from the phone he’s spent most of the interview glued to. I recite:
After choosing a cast of characters from marginalized groups—nonwhite folks, heterosexual and gay, and gay white folks—Madonna publicly describes them as “emotional cripples.” And of course in the context of the film this description seems borne out by the way they allow her to dominate, exploit, and humiliate them.
“That’s absolute bullshit,” responds Stea. “She chose us for our skills. It’s not like we were auditioning: ‘Hey I’m so and so and I’m from a small town in Iowa.’”
“She just picked the best dancers,” explains Salim “Slam” Gauwloos.
“One of the great things about her that I always liked, and she never said it out of her mouth but I got it from her, was, ‘Give me more of you.’ She was never trying to marginalize or take advantage of us,” says Carlton Wilborn. Wilborn also compares hooks to Donald Trump, or more specifically, me to a Trump supporter. “By having a conversation about this person that you get their point of view is a bit ridiculous, you keep hyping their attention, which is what they’re screaming for,” he says.
I float the idea that the exploitation of historically disenfranchised people by powerful entities (such as Madonna) has a place in the conversation about documentary filmmaking, that the power dynamic between subject and documentarian is an unavoidable truth even when guided by the best of intentions. Co-director Zwaan tells me, “It was never about exploiting anything so you never have to worry about stuff like that either. We just wanted to make a film about these guys because they are great guys and we want to show them to the world again.” He assures me that hooks’s perspective is “a very small part of the conversation.”
A similar note that undeniably occupies more discursive space, is that of cultural appropriation, which Madonna has been accused of several times. It’s pertinent in the present company because of her relationship with voguing. Voguing, the series of rhythmic poses proliferated and perfected by mostly black and Latin gay and trans men in ‘80s New York, was an underground art form until Madonna shone a spotlight on it and made it a global sensation with her hit song.
What complicates the appropriation argument is that Madonna did this by plucking Guitierez and Camacho (who recorded for her Maverick Records as Jose & Luis) from the New York City’s 80's ballroom scene to choreograph her “Vogue” video and then tour with her.
“It would bother me more if she would have tried to vogue on her own, and not use somebody that wasn’t from the authentic culture. At least she had the wherewithal to turn to the culture and say, ‘This is what I’m doing, would you like to be involved?’” Camacho explains. “We sent in a tape. She picked our tape, and we choreographed and helped direct that part of the show. We were there to be of service and lend our expertise.”
“The community shouldn’t feel like she took anything,” says Guitierez, now engaged and looking up from his phone. “If anything, it would take a person like her to bring it to the masses. People feel like she stole or she stripped the community of this dance, and it was to the contrary.”
Camacho points out that “Vogue” did nothing to diminish the culture from which it originated—to this day, New York’s ball scene thrives, and it’s just one of several such scenes throughout the country. TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race continue to season pop culture with a ball sensibility. What Madonna’s “Vogue” did for me, practically speaking, was present a distinctly queer element of culture to people would not otherwise have access to it. An 11-year-old in South Jersey when “Vogue” was released, I was one of those people. The images Madonna presented in this era of her career were incredibly useful, if for nothing else, to show me there was more out there, and that it was fun and waiting for me whenever I could get to it. Sometimes providing hope merely means expanding one’s worldview.
The entire table is on board with the idea that Madonna has been a cultural force for good. No one has a bad word to say about her—the closest we get is when Gauwloos says he was “never comfortable” with the Truth or Dare scene when Madonna, perhaps nervously, laughs after being informed that Blond Ambition makeup artist Sharon Gault has been raped. Otherwise, it’s all roses. Wilborn says he his enjoying his current opportunity to “pay homage to her,” and Stea points out that even when he wrote her a personal letter to inform her of his impending lawsuit against her, he signed it by telling her that he loved her.
Madonna declined to appear in Strike a Pose, and the documentary makes clear that none of the dancers remain in touch with their former employer.
But, her presence is impossible to ignore—so much of Strike a Pose is devoted to discussions about her, and her name was said dozens of times in my 35-minute conversations with the guys. Madonna’s orbit is so strong that even when Gauwloos and Wilborn discuss being HIV positive in Strike a Pose, it’s largely in terms of how it affected them emotionally and physically while on Madonna’s tour. Neither of them wanted to disrupt it or get kicked off the tour during that less enlightened time.
And yet, Stea calls the career association with Madonna “limiting,” while Wilborn says the problem is bigger than Madonna—backup dancers aren’t given a lot of credit, period.
“It’s been a gift and a curse,” says Camacho regarding how his association with Madonna has defined a huge part of his career. “The gift is that we get to associate ourselves with her and it was an iconic moment in my life. The curse is that we get pigeonholed into that moment, and sometimes all they want to hear is about that moment. And that’s fine for a while, but then five, six, seven, ten years go by and you’re like, ‘We’re still in that moment?’”
The difficult, almost contradictory, task Strike a Pose sets out for itself is to distinguish its subjects apart from their association with Madonna. But of course, the reason you watch it is because you are aware of them through Madonna in the first place. To attempt a true detangling would be futile.