The year is 1991. Conservative Republicans control the White House for the 11th year in a row, the AIDS epidemic has not slowed down, and homosexuality is still taboo.
Madonna, the most famous female pop star in the world at the time, had just wrapped her biggest tour yet, the Blond Ambition Tour, the year before. In an unprecedented move for stars of her caliber, Madonna let filmmakers showcase life on tour for a documentary that she would call Madonna: Truth or Dare. The film not only showed a side of Madonna fans had rarely seen but also spotlighted those surrounding her on the tour.
This inner circle at the time included seven young male dancers, whom Madonna often referred to as her children: Luis Camacho, Oliver Crumes, Salim Gauwloos, Jose Gutierez, Kevin Stea, Gabriel Trupin and Carlton Welborn. Crumes identified as straight, but the other six were out and proud homosexuals who flaunted their sexual orientation unabashedly throughout the film at a time when this wasn’t the easiest thing to do. The film featured the dancers at a gay pride parade, kissing one another and just generally embracing who they were.
Almost 30 years later, European filmmakers Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan embarked on making Strike a Pose, a documentary about the documentary, but this time shining the spotlight solely on the dancers.
“In the late '80s/early '90s, I definitely felt that Madonna was pushing the envelope and that she was bold,” Gould says. “I really enjoyed how she was playing with the borders between femininity and masculinity and black and white and gay and straight. I think Madonna played a really important part in liberating popular culture, sexuality and religion.”
This same period saw the emergence of the ball subculture, where LGBT New Yorkers competed against one another in “houses.” One category of competition to emerge from the ball scene was the new dance style known as voguing. Both Luis Camacho and Jose Gutierez were vogue experts in their all-Latin House of Extravaganza. The two met at the High School of Performing Arts in New York City and became involved in the underground ball scene together when they were teenagers.
“The houses are like a gay fraternity/family. In the beginning when I started going to balls, it really was about the excitement of competition,” says Camacho, who grew up on the Lower East Side of NYC but now lives in Los Angeles. The houses were "really fashioned after the fashion couture houses of Europe. … We had voguers, we had people who did runway, we had people who did design elements via clothes. There was just so much creativity.”
Word got back to Camacho and Gutierez that Madonna was looking for voguers for a project, so they videotaped themselves voguing at a club and sent it to her. Camacho, who was only 18 at the time, said that Madonna saw the tape and scheduled a private audition at a club called Trax, where she told them she was looking for dancers for a music video and a possible tour. “It was pretty surreal," Camacho says. "It was weird only because it was the middle of the afternoon. They had all the doors to the club opened to the street. An empty, unlit club is not really glamorous or very stimulating, creative-wise. We were like umm, OK — this looks different in the daytime! But [the DJ] started spinning his tunes and we started dancing and the rest is, as they say, history."
After that initial audition, Camacho and Gutierez were asked to come to an open audition, where the dancers were being taught non-voguing styles like jazz and hip-hop. Camacho says that when Madonna realized that he and Gutierez were trained dancers and could keep up, it “sealed the deal” for her. They were told they got the part and were hired to star in, and choreograph, Madonna’s new music video for her song, “Vogue” — an homage to the new dance style and ball culture.
Camacho and Gutierez, as well as the other five Strike a Pose dancers, traveled to Los Angeles for a two-day shoot, with David Fincher in the director’s chair. “I was a kid from the Lower East Side and all of a sudden I’m on set with a really big star,” Camacho says. “All of the stuff that we do as a group [Jose and I] choreographed. All the stuff that you see that is just me or just Jose is all improv. Voguing is an improvisational art form. It really is the essence of how you feel inside. It’s pride, sometimes comedy, it’s fierceness. It’s whatever comes through your body.”
It was also on set for the “Vogue” shoot that the dancers found out they’d be accompanying Madonna on her soon-to-launch Blond Ambition world tour. “It totally changed the trajectory of my life,” Camacho says of being cast for the tour. “The moment I stepped off the plane the first time from New York in L.A., I just felt like I was being taken seriously. I’m just so glad I had the wherewithal to be present and try to remember and take in as much as I could.”
After more than four months on the road (which was all filmed for the Truth or Dare documentary), Camacho said he went home and slept for “like three days.” “Then when I came to, I reached over to order room service and come to find out I wasn’t in a hotel room,” he jokes.
Immediately following the tour’s completion, Camacho and the others continued to work with Madonna for a bit before falling out of touch. They did the now-famous Marie Antoinette–themed MTV Video Music Awards performance, some charity appearances and a video for Rock the Vote with her. Camacho and Gutierez also released a single that hit the charts called “Queen’s English” (for which Madonna provided the background vocals).
Truth or Dare opened in 1991 to rave reviews and ended up inspiring a generation of gay people. “I think Truth or Dare really shined a light on gay culture, and it really gave a voice to people who felt disenfranchised at the time,” Camacho says. “We didn’t have a bunch of Lady Gagas. Today, every other artist is standing up for gay rights and making everybody know and feel that it’s OK to be who you are. Back then it was just Madonna. This was a really pivotal moment in her career and she had the wherewithal to push that boundary. … She made it OK for us to show our true colors, our flamboyant feathers, and be OK with ourselves.”
Strike a Pose filmmakers Zwaan and Gould first watched Truth or Dare as kids and the dancers always stood out in their memory. In 2013, they decided to go out and look for them. “For us, they were examples of joy and pride,” Gould says. “They were free, liberated, outspoken and also really well-cast by Madonna because they're such different personalities.”
They met with each dancer individually, but some, including Camacho, were a harder sell than others. “I honestly thought it was another request to do just another Madonna interview. How many times can somebody ask me if Madonna eats salad with her fingers?” Camacho groans. After Camacho ignored emails from the filmmakers as well as phone calls from fellow dancer Kevin Stea, Stea finally reached out to Camacho’s partner. Eventually, Camacho called Stea back and was convinced to meet with the filmmakers. “We met in Los Angeles and after having them take me out to dinner — I need dinner first, of course — very cheekily, I said I’ll think about it.” In the end, like all the other dancers, he jumped at "the chance and opportunity to tell just my own story.”
Indeed, the filmmakers believe he did tell his story in a touching and personal way. They point to the big reunion scene, when all six surviving dancers reunite for dinner (Trupin died of AIDS in 1995). “I think [Luis] has a very important line at the reunion dinner. He’s the one that said, ‘[Madonna] doesn’t owe us anything,’ which I think is beautiful,” Gould said. “Sometimes our film is summarized as ‘those angry dancers’ and it’s definitely not that simple. I think Luis has come to terms with the whole thing in a very beautiful way.”
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If Truth or Dare is a film that inspired the LGBT community to accept who they are, Strike a Pose is one that gives credit to the unsung dancers who helped achieve this. “For me, it wasn’t like I was watching Truth or Dare and saw these gay guys and thought, ‘Oh, that’s me,’ because I didn’t realize at that point I was gay,” Zwaan says. “For me, being shown six different types of gay guys, and all very happy, outspoken gay guys, not shying away from who they were or having to be ashamed, I think that at some level that must have helped me with coming to terms with who I am.”
So has Madonna herself seen the documentary about her documentary? According to Camacho, possibly. “I haven’t spoken to her in a long time but just recently we had a Q&A where the moderator told us that he was with [Madonna’s manager] Guy Oseary and Guy told him that Madonna did see the film and that she liked it very much,” Camacho says. “Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know. But I’d like to think that’s the true story, so I’m going to keep on believing that.”