Strike A Pose: Madonna's "Vogue" Dancers Recall Blond Ambition Tour & Gay Life In The '90s
Life after superstardom…
In 1990, Madonna embarked on her Blond Ambition World Tour. She trekked from Japan to Europe to North America, challenging societal views on sexuality while entertaining the masses. She pushed the envelope with wildly provocative dance numbers and concert themes, yet never failed to promote safe sex. “You know you never really get to know a guy until you ask them to wear a rubber,” she unapologetically said to a crowd in Japan, before jumping into her set of “Get Into The Groove.”
Due to the tour’s highly sexualized and risqué acts, she faced various death threats, ban threats from the Vatican, and warnings of arrest. However controversial, there was no denying the pop star was on a journey to put a human face on the gay community and empower female sexuality.
After the tour in 1991, came Truth or Dare, a behind-the-scenes documentary of the show, which also chronicled the lives of seven of Madonna's back up dancers—Luis Camacho, Oliver Grumes III, Salim Gauwloos, Jose Gutierez, Kevin Stea, Gabriel Trupin, and Carlton Wilborn.
“You see the dancers that I work with and little bits and pieces of their life," said Madonna during an interview on Good Morning America circa 1991. "I deal with a lot of issues… and what I think to be a big problem in the United States and that is homophobia. There is a real big section in the movie devoted to that. These things exist in life. I’m only presenting life to people. I’m not presenting anything that they are not exposed to in everyday life, but maybe they don’t want to deal with it. If you kept putting something in somebody’s face eventually maybe they can come to terms with it.”
Twenty-five years later, these dancers are telling their own narrative (with the exception of Trupin, who died in 1995 at 26, due to complications from AIDS) in Strike A Pose, a Tribeca Film Festival documentary created by Ester Goud and Reijer Zwaan. The film, which had its grand North American debut on April 15, explores the truth behind everything that happened on tour and in the aftermath of the release of Truth of Dare. Three of the dancers — Stea, Trupin and Grumes — sued Madonna for the film due to issues with contracting and for publicly showcasing their homosexual identities, a huge issue for Trupin at the time. Trupin’s mother echoes his feelings about Truth or Dare in the recently-premiered Strike A Pose. "[It's] not a statement that he wanted to make. It was Madonna’s statement,” she said of her son’s sexuality.
The documentary also sheds light on how the tour first got started, with Madonna recruiting a pair of Latino dancers from New York City: Luis Camacho of Puerto Rican descent and Jose Gutierez of Dominican descent. Together, they choreographed her famous “Vogue” video.
Both were kids from the underground voguing scene and part of the House of Extravaganza, a crew of the New York ballroom scene. Camacho and Gutierez were dance majors at Fiorello H. La Guardia High School Of Music And Performing Arts, and with a little hard work and a serendipitous encounter, they got the job.
“It’s crazy when you have this person give you this opportunity and we really didn’t work for it,” Jose muses. “It wasn’t a job that we were training for, like most dancers do.” Prior to dancing with Madonna at just 18, Jose trained at Eliot Feld Ballet Tech School since the third grade and traveled to Brazil and Japan with the House of Extravaganza.
On a bright spring day, Luis and Jose are holding court in a pressroom on the second floor of The Smyth Hotel. They discuss their experiences with Madge, the tour, Strike The Pose and the impact Truth Or Dare had on the gay community. “The first film gave us an opportunity to be express ourselves,” says Luis.“This new movie gave us an opportunity to express ourselves in a different light."
VIBE VIVA: What was it like being a gay Latino in the early '90s?
Jose: At the time it was crazy because there was a lot of a crime in the streets. Being gay wasn’t accepted as it is today, and I was very rebellious at a young age. [Laughs] So growing up then, even though what was around me was very distracting I managed to try to stay focused on my dancing. I’m from the Lower East Side—my family came from nothing really, they migrated here from the Dominican Republic. [Dancing] was a way to get out of the ghetto.
The gay scene opened my eyes to so many artistic things, and that also helped me develop as an artist. I was more dedicated as a kid, growing up I loved to dance, but other than that it was very hard growing up in the ghetto, trying to stay focused when everything around is drug deals and stuff like that. I came out at a very young age to the club scene, and that was my escape where I got to dance, perform and travel.
So were you part of the famous ballroom scene voguing documentary Paris is Burning?
Jose: Yes, oh my god I was a baby! I was 16-years old. I remember sneaking off for a weekend to Washington, D.C. to go compete at a ball. I snuck away without telling my mom. And that was a scene from Paris is Burning. I remember thinking to myself ‘I want to win, so I’m trying to get everything in there.' I was voguing at the speed of light, 'cause I didn’t want to lose. [Laughs]
Take me back to that night when you and Luis auditioned for Madonna at the club?
Jose: It was in club Sound Factory. A mutual friend of ours, Madonna’s make-up artist Debi Bazar, was like ‘Madonna’s coming she’s looking for dancers soon, and I told her about you guys, you have to meet her.’ In situations like that, you’re always like 'yeah yeah, whatever.’ And so we submitted a video of us dancing with the whole House of Extravaganza.
One night we walk into the club, and we see Debi and she was like ‘Come here I want you to meet somebody.’ She introduced me right there to Madonna. I remember being in awe. She said, 'Hey, I heard a lot about you guys, you guys do this vogue thing and I want to see.’ I was still stuck 'cause I remember thinking ‘you want us to show you now in the club? And she was like ‘Yeah, right now.’
I was always fashionably inclined, I was done up in this crazy Gaultier outfit. And I was like ‘how do you want me to dance like this?’ Her bodyguard took off his pants and gave them to me in the VIP bathroom. I couldn’t believe I was wearing her bodyguards’ pants; he was this huge dude. But I managed and practically auditioned on the spot. And once the club got wind that she was there, the whole club turned into an audition. She said ‘Sit here with me,’ to me and Luis. ‘And let’s watch these guys, tell me what you think.’
We were there for at least two hours, then she invited us to the actual audition. We beat out 7,000 dancers. It was crazy, because she thought that I was just an underground dancer—a voguer from the gay community. She didn’t know that I was 10 years into training. So she was like ‘Oh I want you to come and do the “Vogue” video, but I don’t know if I’m going to take you on tour, because there are other forms of dance that you have to be able to do.’ Then when she saw me she said ‘I didn’t know you can do all of that.’ I was like ‘You didn’t ask me’. [Laughs]
Did you feel any pressure to do well in the video for “Vogue”?
Jose: Oh yeah! We wanted show good work coming from the community—especially on a main stage for the world to see. We wanted to deliver the goods.
What was that first night like on tour?
Jose: The minute she came up on a lift and they saw a little bit of a hair, everyone just went crazy. And your heart is beating out of your chest. I remember that was the first moment in time I was like, ‘Oh sh*t is real’ And when you hear them screaming your name, at 18-years old, you’re like ‘They are screaming for me?’ It was like you just want to jump out into the crowd—such a great feeling.
How did it feel like when Truth or Dare came out?
Jose: It was very overwhelming for me at the time. I didn’t set out to move people; you’re so young that you don’t realize that. You don’t think that people are like ‘Oh my god Truth or Dare saved my life.’ Today, I still get ‘Watching that movie, saved my life, seeing you being so open and comfortable made me want to come out to my family.’ That to me is amazing cause at that age, you don’t set out to do any of that. You’re not looking to be a role model, you’re just looking to live in that moment. That’s why I think I didn’t realize till much later what I had accomplished. I was just there to dance, and I loved what I was doing. I was just a young kid expressing my art. I’m so glad I was able to touch and move people. The fact that people still appreciate it 26 years later is amazing.
Why do you think the '90s needed this?
Jose: Because it was a time where we needed something new. The '90s just came in and being part of the community and part of the scene—with the rise of pop art, I think they needed somebody like Madonna to put the community on the map. [She] opened up people’s eyes to so many things that are going on in the world. It’s here: boys like each other, we’re gay, we’re human, we’re talented.
I think it played a major part in the early '90s because you never seen anything like it. That was before reality shows, now you see it like nothing. But back then to see two boys kissing was overwhelming, but it was happening. I can’t even imagine someone being not proud of who they are. We have to be proud of who we are, and everybody is somebody. We are all here for a reason. And ever since I was a kid I always remembered that: ‘You’re gay, but you are special.’
Truth or Dare showcased the love Madonna had for you guys. How would you define your relationship with her back then?
Jose: I didn’t know how to take it. I was so young, and yeah I loved the love. She was almost like a mother to us.
Luis: This was our first big mainstream thing. We were quote in quote kings of the underground with House of Extravaganza. But this crossover was the first to us. She really took to us. By the time we got to Los Angeles and started working we were really tight. We felt very akin to her. She was really loving towards to us.
A photo posted by INtheNAMEoftheFATHER(J🙏🏾SE) (@fatherjose.xtravaganza) on
How was it like dealing with all the controversy the Blond Ambition tour spurred?
Jose: When they started calling hotels and leaving death threats [it] was scary. But at the same time that made us want to be even fiercer. I was ready to take off my clothes and everything. And after all of that, we were extra provocative.
Can you describe to me a different side of Madonna that you guys were privy to?
Jose: I saw such an emotional side. I thought I was going to lose my job because I got her so upset, to the point where she was crying. The tour was almost ending and we got into a conversation, and she was promising us to continue with a record deal, and performing at the MTV Awards. And I sad, ‘You’re a liar, we’re not going to see you again.’ I said ‘Oh please, you’re just gong to forget about us.’
It really hurt her feelings. And she just kicked me out of her dressing room. So that was a moment for me that I never saw—cause you think, ‘When this is over you’re going to move on.’ She just started crying and she said, ‘Just get out of my room.' She kicked me out.
Luis: She honestly was really loving and motherly to us. But besides that, she was an around-the-way girl when there weren’t any cameras around. She was really chill, relaxed and we hung out.
What was it like adjusting after you guys got back home from tour?
Luis: The phone wasn’t there for room service! [Laughs]
Jose: It was a rude awakening. You’re spoiled with this lifestyle. As a kid you can easily adapt to all of that. I hated home, I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be in my mom’s house. My mother looked at me like ‘Calm down before I smack you down.’ [Laughs]
Luis: Even though we didn’t come back to the situation we were accustomed to, we came back with so much knowledge.
Jose, in Strike A Pose, your mother mentions her disappointment because you didn’t continue with your dancing career. Why didn’t you keep going after working with Madonna?
Jose: I got distracted for a moment and I hid for a while. A lot my friends started dying when AIDS began to hit and I lost grip of a lot of things. I was still so young and I didn’t know how to deal with everything. All my family and friends that we had looked up to passed on. I was also caught up in messy relationships. Not to say that I regret anything, it made me who I am today, but I think that all of that was happening so fast. There were times where I had three or four friends in the hospital dying at 18-years old and nobody knew where it was coming from. It became very hard, and you do things that you wouldn’t normally do because you feel cheated and you walk around bitter. I did that for a while. I was getting so much love and adoration, but I didn’t see any of that stuff.
What are your fondest memories of Gabriel?
Luis: He was never upset about anything.
Jose: He was always smiling—so sweet.
Luis: He was such a good-natured person. We never came across someone like that, especially us—we came from a lion’s den. We come from this background of either you're fierce or you’re not. Gabriel was this little ball of sunshine and light.
How did you guys feel about the lawsuit Kevin, Oliver and Gabriel filed?
Luis: We were in the middle of doing a record deal, so we really didn’t want to get too involved with what was going on. At that time we didn’t understand why.
Jose: It divided us.
Luis: They had something in their contract from their agency that they were not honoring.
Do you guys understand why Gabriel did it?
Luis: I understand why he did it, but that wasn’t our situation. We were out and proud already. Do I understand why he wanted out the movie? Yes. Do I understand why she would want him in the movie? Yes.
How does it feel like not having a relationship with Madonna now?
Jose: Sometimes it feels weird, because you like to think that these moments you share with a person aren’t just business. There are feelings involved. I know she thinks the same. Whatever the reason is, she has moved on. Life happens and she is a celebrity as well. I don’t expect her to come knocking on my door, but I definitely miss her on a personal level. It doesn’t have to be gig. It was more than that.
How do you feel about critics who say Madonna hasn’t given people of color the proper recognition for starting the vogue dancing movement?
Jose: She took two of our own and allowed us to take it all over the world. This vogue thing needed somebody like her.
If you can give your younger selves advice what would it be?
Luis: To be more focused
Jose: Be more present.
Do you guys have any regrets?
Luis: I don’t regret anything.
Jose: Sometimes. I always say that everything that we did has made us who we are today. No I wouldn’t change anything that happened. We would do everything the same way. [But] just be more focused like Luis said.
Luis: If could have went to Los Angeles afterwards and gotten represented, I would’ve probably done that.
What are you guys doing now?
Luis: I own a show in Palm Springs, it’s called "Carnival Cabaret," and it’s a female impersonator show. I choreograph for it, but I’m not in the show. And I’m writing a memoir right now, too.
Jose: I’m working with the kids at The Door, an organization dedicated to helping youth. I just did a project with Baz Luhrmann and Jaden Smith, which is coming out on Netflix. It’s called The Get Down. I was on it as a consulting choreographer, and they asked me to be in the project. I also just got back from Sweden, from teaching a workshop there— still trying to keep dancing.