Madonna's Blond Ambition Dancers, 25 Years After 'Truth Or Dare' Made Them Queer Icons

"Strike a Pose" showcases their lives since the revelatory documentary.

Released at the height of her fame, Madonna’s 1991 documentary “Truth or Dare” was a seminal moment for pop superstardom. One of the world’s most scrutinized celebrities invited cameras to chronicle the intimate behind-the-scenes happenings of what would become one of the decade’s most celebrated roadshows, 1990’s elaborate Blond Ambition Tour. But Madonna fans fawning over this naked depiction of their queen got a surprisingly profound B-plot surrounding the singer’s backup dancers, a cabal of mostly gay young men representing queer culture at a time when mainstream visibility was almost nonexistent. For a short stint, Madonna became a mother figure to them, and then, after a whirlwind trip across the globe, it all came to an abrupt halt.

Today, “Truth or Dare” is defined as much by these dancers as it is by Madonna. The documentary “Strike a Pose” showcases what seven of them have been up to in the 25 years since the Blond Ambition Tour and “Truth or Dare.” A humane and stirring portrait, the movie premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, where I sat down with the group to discuss their journey. On April 6, “Strike a Pose” will air on Logo. Here are highlights of our conversation.

I’ve probably seen “Truth or Dare” 2,000 times, so this is a true pinch-me moment for Madonna fans. What do you remember about the day you all parted ways after the tour ended?

Luis Camacho: What I remember is not saying goodbye. I left the very next day ― I don’t want to say mad, but kind of upset that it was all over. My defense against it being over was, “I’m just leaving!” But on the plane back, I was like, “Wow, what just happened? I can’t believe that, at this moment, right now, in this chair, on this plane, it is over.”

Reijer Zwaan, co-director: That’s exactly what started the first thought of the film we made. If you’ve been through such a thing at such a young age, something so impactful and powerful and great, then what?

What did you envision when you first considered making the movie?

Reijer: I had seen “Truth or Dare” ― maybe not 2,000 times, but 1,999 ― and they all had a real impact on me because they were so free and strong and powerful. They were so iconic in my mind. And then we started talking about it as a basic idea, and as soon as we met them it turned into being a film about how hard it is to actually be yourself and show yourself to the world, even for the men we all know for being proud and out and strong.

Ester Gould, co-director: I think there’s something also about the choice to make it about the dancers. It’s not a look back at the whole tour, with Madonna’s brother and the makeup and the background singers, who definitely have a huge role on the tour. There was something so poignant about making this choice. For gay culture, they’re the iconic figures ― and Madonna, of course. How do you continue life after being an icon when you were only 20?

Carlton Wilborn: What’s interesting to me — and I never thought this until now ― is the Madonna version of the iconic status is because it’s the rah-rah. Us becoming that, I think, makes sense for people because we’re relatable. We are the everyday gay person, the trying-to-figure-it-all-out person. That humanized us to our fan base in a way that Madonna could not.

The Blond Ambition dancers, photographed for "Strike a Pose."
The Blond Ambition dancers, photographed for "Strike a Pose."

Did it take seeing “Truth or Dare” to understand that icon status, or did you experience it while on the tour?

Luis: By the time we saw the film, we were aware, honestly. After that, it only got bigger. Now, that being said, that whole frenzy came with people saying how much we inspired them to come out themselves. We never set out to do that, but it turned out that was the gift of that whole situation.

Salim “Slam” Gauwloos: Years later, that’s what I started to realize: “You know, we did do something. We changed people’s lives.” Even to this day, we get emails and everything. It’s just amazing. I still gag about it.

Kevin Stea: When I saw “Truth or Dare,” it wasn’t like, “Oh, this is some big revelation of how famous and iconic we were.” It was like watching a home movie. It was literally like, “Oh, that was so fun; oh, that was so cute; oh my God, there you were, Slam!”

Kevin and Oliver, you sued Madonna for using showcasing your sexuality in the movie. Having come far in the evolution of queer culture since “Truth or Dare,” what do you make of the suit?

Kevin: I don’t regret the lawsuit at all. I’m very proud of what I did and proud of standing up for myself and my community and being a voice for dancers and the dance community. That said, there were different issues between all of us. I think what got convoluted in the lawsuit was that [Gabriel Trupin, a dancer who died of AIDS in 1995] was suing for something very different than we were. Oliver and I were literally just suing for our contract. There was a clause for a movie, and she didn’t honor it. That was it. But what ended up being sensationalized was Gabriel’s forced outing. I mean, I was also forcibly outed, but I totally accepted it ― that’s fine. She came out for me! Ta-da! Hey, everybody! But Gabriel was in a different position. He had a boyfriend, his boyfriend had a son, and he was getting bullied and attacked at school. There were lots of other things involved in his situation that just became sensationalized by the media. That’s all that’s left now — when you hear about that period of time, all that’s left are these little snippets of sensationalist press that we were trying to drag Madonna through the mud. And that’s not at all what we were trying to do. We just wanted them to honor our clause.

Oliver Crumes III, the only straight man in the bunch, who made homophobic remarks at the start of Blond Ambition: I mirror what he said.

Reijer: When it comes to Gabriel, that was about being outed, and it was about being shown kissing another man, Salim. And we talked about it a lot. There’s the personal privacy of Gabriel, obviously, and then there’s the greater good. We’re still talking about the film today, about the kiss today. For many, many people, it was the first gay kiss they saw that they could maybe identify with. So there were these two things to weigh, both for Madonna and the director, Alek Keshishian. Our debate has not ended on that.

What do you think? Should she have kept Gabriel and Salim’s kiss?

Salim: I had a boyfriend at that moment, so my only thing is that I didn’t want to cheat. I was thinking, “Oh my God, I should go to her and tell her my situation and maybe she won’t put it in there.” I was thinking about that, but I didn’t.

Ester: Didn’t you edit it on a VHS tape?

Salim: That too. You remember we got a VHS copy of the movie before it was shown in the movie theater? I edited that part out. That was so weird, coming from Europe and coming to America. I never had the whole thing, coming out of the closet. I came straight out of ballet school, so with my family there was never a problem with the kiss or anything. They always knew I was gay. The HIV thing, that was another thing, that I told them just recently. But still, they were so open about it.

Carlton: But it does get to be interesting because it was inside of a game of Truth or Dare, right? So the way I look at it now is, what if the same dare was given to two straight guys? What kind of conversation would we be having about it? I find that to be very interesting. I think maybe because you had your own personal story about it, it because glaring about your sexuality. But to me, it literally was a game. I wasn’t seeing two gay guys wanting to be together.

Ester: But to conservative America, they’re not going to think, “Oh, they might be straight but playing a game.” That’s just not done.

All of you shot individual footage before being reunited for “Strike a Pose.” What was it like finally being in the same room together? Many of you hadn’t seen one another since “Truth or Dare” opened.

Carlton: Phenomenal.

Oliver: I was just blown away. I couldn’t believe it. “Look, they’re all grown up! Everybody looks good, everybody looks healthy.” It was just beautiful, it really was. We were in the restaurant for a very long time just chatting, and I heard stuff that I’d never heard before, from before the movie even came out. I remember going home after the wrap party and I’m sitting on the plane going, “Wow, I did not notice that about Slam and Carlton and Luis.” It tripped me out because, in my eyes, and from what I thought I would have happened to them, everything was good, there were no ups and downs. But come to find out…

Luis: There were some ups and downs.

Oliver: There were some serious ups and downs, and even when they told me about [Salim and Carlton’s HIV-positive status, which they hid during Blond Ambition], I was like, “You could have told me this in the beginning.” I would have been OK with it because that’s how close we were.

Ester: There’s an indescribable vibe when they all get together.

The Blond Ambition dancers, photographed with Madonna for "Truth or Dare."
The Blond Ambition dancers, photographed with Madonna for "Truth or Dare."
Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

Did you attempt to get Madonna in that room?

Reijer: We talked about it a lot, actually, because a lot of people around us, like the financiers of the film, would always ask about that, like, “Get her in!”

Ester: We even felt pressured that that was the only way [to get the movie financed].

Reijer: And we always thought, “Just try to imagine the same dinner with her there.” It would have been completely different. It was just hard to have that same conversation.

Esther: If you think about it, the whole film is about them, and then all of a sudden you’d have her appear? There would be something very off about that.

Did you try to involve her at all, in any sense?

Reijer: Obviously the archival footage we had to clear with her, and we thought about some big “Vogue” scene, but there was nothing we truly considered. Coming together and actually performing ― that would have made sense, but I don’t mind it not happening.

Carlton: Us at dinner with her is a whole TV special in itself. “Strike a Pose 2.0.”

Given the lawsuit and how quickly Madonna moved on with her career, how would you guys feel to be in the same room with her again?

Kevin: I would absolutely love it.

Oliver: I would feel the same way.

Kevin: Just like we’re family, it would feel like there’s one more missing family member joining the table.

Oliver: I don’t know what’s going on right now as far as all of her tours, but I’m sure she doesn’t have what she had with us.

Kevin: I think there’s something to be said about how our youth lives on in others. When we see each other, we’re suddenly brought back to ourselves when we were 20. We feel younger. I feel like that would be an opportunity for her to remember her youth.

Luis: And how epic would that be, to have that photo-op, that screenshot, that video of her with us one more time? Wouldn’t the world just go crazy?

Yes. Yes, it would.

Carlton: I think what’s powerful about this movie right now is that, in relation to the Madonna sensibility, her way has always been much more European ― very out of the box, very free with the body and the skin. So it just is a wonderful irony that taking it to the next level gets to be a team from Europe that’s doing such incredible activity already. [Editor’s note: Ester Gould is English, and Reijer Zwaan is Dutch.] They took what was rich about it and they took the cap off of it, and I think that’s why it feels so compelling to be around.

Ester: I guess we don’t get blinded by the whole celebrity of it all. We really don’t. It’s not like we have to try not to — we really don’t care.

I think that’s the only way to make this documentary effectively.

Ester: Right. But at the same time, we don’t care about bashing her. We got some pressure about her having to be on board or having to be in the final scene in the film, but also there’s people who wanted us to bash her somehow in the film. For us, it’s really important that the film moves away from that whole culture, which is a very gossipy, tiring way of thinking, and who gives a shit?

Most of you didn’t work with Madonna again after Blond Ambition. Did you keep up with her career after parting ways?

Oliver: I never went to any of her concerts, but I did keep up with her. I’ve said this before, but once again, my favorite thing that I’ve seen her do out of all the years was the Super Bowl when she did “Vogue.” But here’s my thing, and I say this with strong belief: She should always do what Jose and Luis choreographed.

Salim: I do think Jose and Luis’ choreography on “Vogue” was the best. It was just the best.

Calton: But in all fairness, I think if we’re going to say that, because there are so many iconic moments about that show, [Blond Ambition director and choreographer Vince Patterson’s] work was equally incredible. What he did with “Like a Prayer,” with all of us moving as an organism.

Luis: Since Blond Ambition, it’s become this thing ― I don’t know why, but I’ve seen all the tours after, and not by choice, but because there’s always someone who wants to go to the concert with me, like, “I bought you a ticket, will you go with me?” It turns into this thing, like, “I’m at the Madonna concert with Luis!” It’s very weird, but I get to see the show for free and they’re always really good tickets. On the Confessions Tour, that whole opening was incredible, and I had the best seats. She opened with “Future Lovers” and she comes out of a ball. The ball opens and she’s there, and I’m literally right in front of her. I just smiled like this [makes a huge face], and go, “Hiiii!”

Did she recognize you?

Luis: Yeah! She looked down! She was like, “Hmmm.” She gave me that “what’s up, girl?” look.

What’s your favorite Madonna memory?

Carlton: One of my favorite moments was actually still in the audition process. She had the auditions, she did the cuts, and then she invited us to go take a hip-hop class, which ended up being Oliver’s class. And she was actually there in the class learning the stuff. I thought she was going to be there to watch us learn something and make some choices. But it was amazing to see her in the confusion and in the not-knowing and the needing to ask whether something was on the 7 or 8 beat or what’s the elbow do. That was really cool. She is fucking human.

Kevin: One of my favorite moments was teaching her “Open Your Heart.” I didn’t know the counts. I was the associate choreographer, but I was teaching her from the words because I thought it would be easier, because it was all based on the words. And she’s like, “I want counts!” I’m like, “Just learn the words!” It’s one of those moments where she got all stressed, and then I said, “Just go from the words” and she really gave me a glare, but then she understood immediately and was like, “OK.” She was human about it. She went to Madonna for a moment, and then she went back to being human.

Oliver: One of my favorite moments doing “Open Your Heart” ― it’s not a good moment, but it’s one of my favorites. She would be mad at me, and I’m dancing on the stage and as I’m coming down, she’s sitting on a chair. If she’s mad at me, she’d smile at the audience, but when she’d turn around to me, she’d be [makes a stoned-face expression]. She’d be cursing me out onstage, literally! And the “Vogue” video, too.

Salim: I have two favorite moments. “Express Yourself,” just the beginning when we would come on ― the crowd! And also playing Dick Tracy, being introduced to 50,000 people as “Slam.” Just being a dancer is beyond my wildest dreams.

Luis: I have a lot, but one of my favorite memories was me, Madonna and Jose going to the Prince concert. We got up onstage and danced with Prince for a minute.

Jose: Well, she danced with him. It was so funny: When we got onstage, because we were tall, he ran and jumped on top of a speaker. He was in between us and he brought the girl, Mayte, and he pulled her into our circle and he ran. He’s like, “These guys are not going to steal the show from me.” That’s exactly what it was. You could feel it! And we were wearing these tight Gaultier pinstripes ― they were almost dresses with straps and everything. So we looked larger than life. We were trying to dance with him and he just ran off!

Luis: In his heels!

Jose: It was so weird.

Carlton: Jose, what was your favorite?

Jose: I think the shopping that we did. The shopping was always the best, like in Paris. That was my favorite. We got to go around all the stores and pick out stuff, not having to worry about prices. When she would say “you can pick whatever you want,” I would melt.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Strike a Pose” airs April 6 at 8 p.m. ET on Logo.


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