In Madonna’s famous “Vogue” music video, released in 1990, dancer Luis Camacho poses in the company of statues, flicks his hands around his face as if making a series of frames, and — having shed his natty suit jacket and unbuttoned his white shirt — basks in a breeze coming from somewhere offscreen. He and his fellow dancers appear for alluringly short periods, one shot held for mere seconds before cutting to another. Madonna’s voice extends across it all.
Contrast that with the opening scene of Strike a Pose, a documentary by Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan that has its North American premiere April 15 at Tribeca Film Festival, in which Camacho, now middle-aged and slightly pudgy, looks in a mirror and dances. Wearing a black T-shirt and baseball cap, he spins, stops, and brings his arms fluidly up, around, and behind his head: He’s voguing, and the difference is striking. Instead of hearing Madonna’s voice, you get Camacho’s, recalling the pressure he used to feel to “act like everybody else.” Now, his movements seem to say, he’s expressing himself on his own terms.
Strike a Pose profiles the seven backup dancers — Camacho, Oliver Crumes III, Salim Gauwloos, Jose Gutierez, Kevin Stea, Gabriel Trupin, and Carlton Wilborn — who worked Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition tour, thrilling the world with their moves. Their routines yoked together steps from hip-hop, jazz, modern dance, and ballet. Most of them also had formal training: Gutierez began studying ballet at Eliot Feld’s school in third grade, and Wilborn had danced professionally at Hubbard Street in Chicago. But it was voguing that gave Blond Ambition a new type of cool. Conspicuously missing from the film is Madonna herself; here, the backup dancers are the stars.
Not that they weren’t already. Voguing emerged from New York’s underground queer ballroom scene in the Eighties (it was captured memorably in the documentary Paris Is Burning), but its roots stretch back at least as far as the Sixties, when Harlem drag queens imitated fashion models; holding poses as they made their way down a catwalk, they both mocked and one-upped mainstream standards of beauty. By the Eighties, voguing was folded into the balls that brought Houses, largely composed of black and Latino performers, together to compete. After Madonna saw Camacho and Gutierez, both members of the House of Xtravaganza, dance, she invited them to audition for her upcoming tour. As the two dancers remember it, their spots were pretty much guaranteed: She needed them to teach her how to vogue. They also choreographed and performed in the “Vogue” video.
The ensuing story has been told many times over. On one hand, Truth or Dare, the immensely successful 1991 behind-the-scenes documentary of the Blond Ambition tour, on which Strike a Pose focuses, celebrated queerness and reveled in the in-your-face exuberance that helped create vogue. Six of the seven dancers were gay, and, to this day, they get letters from fans who say that the film helped give them the courage to come out. On the other hand, three dancers filed a lawsuit against Madonna after the release of Truth or Dare, saying she hadn’t paid them what she owed them and that she’d violated their privacy. Trupin, for one, felt he’d been outed against his wishes; as his mother recalls in Strike a Pose, Truth or Dare was not “a statement that he wanted to make. It was [Madonna’s] statement.”
Meanwhile, where the history of voguing is concerned, critics allege that Madonna has profited from, and overshadowed, the creations of queer black and brown artists. Thomas F. DeFrantz, chair of Duke’s African and African American Studies department, contends in the Spring 2016 issue of The Black Scholar that Madonna has a long history of moving black and brown dances “out of their foundational social circumstances,” where they celebrated the identities and powers of oppressed people. When Madonna puts these dances into her videos and her concerts, he argues, she reduces them to spectacle.
Gutierez disagrees. Madonna, he says, wasn’t exploiting gay artists: She was honoring them, bringing their art to the world. Where the dancing for Blond Ambition was concerned, he tells the Voice, “It was choreographed by all of us, to be honest.” Vincent Paterson, the show’s choreographer, had a strong sense of artistic direction but didn’t always have a fixed plan for particular steps. Gutierez remembers that the dancers would “go into the studio, play music, and Vince would say, ‘Let me see you move.'” Since Paterson wasn’t very familiar with voguing, Gutierez says, he and Camacho designed whole swaths of steps themselves, as when, in “Like a Virgin,” they played bedposts come to life. Madonna didn’t just bring voguing to the mainstream, he says, she brought her teachers with her — “How is that a disrespect to the community?” Still, he admits, more recognition would be nice. But he knows that’s not the way commercial dance works, and besides, “Who wants to give credit to a little gay boy from the Lower East Side in Manhattan?”
Strike a Pose doesn’t wrestle with these issues, at least not head-on. But regardless of whether Madonna has marginalized gay men, the documentary certainly doesn’t. Instead, it casts its gaze on the variegated meanings of dance for these men, onstage and off-. After all, in the Eighties, balls weren’t just spaces of celebration, but also of mourning for the many members of the community lost to the AIDS epidemic. Vogue, and you might be memorializing the mentors you’d lost. During the Blond Ambition tour, three dancers were secretly HIV-positive; in the years since, one has died, and one has only recently spoken publicly about the weight of that diagnosis. Truth or Dare promised an unfiltered look at life on the tour, but as Gauwloos puts it in Strike a Pose, there was “a whole other backstage.”
Under Gould and Zwaan’s direction, that backstage comes forward beautifully. Moments after Gauwloos’s comments, Wilborn, who is HIV-positive, is seen dancing in front of an empty stadium, then going to a doctor’s appointment. The sequence seems to imply that secrets have no audience. Meanwhile, on a city sidewalk, Stea improvises a solo against the wall of a building that seems, variously, like a support, a partner, or dead weight; there’s no stage in sight.
These present-day moves were done specifically for the film, but Strike a Pose shows us that, onstage or not, dance is still front and center in these men’s lives. Camacho performs in a drag show. Gauwloos teaches a class in Vienna. Gutierez instructs a room of young people to vogue, and, in another scene, coaches a cautious walker across the floor. “Be proud,” he says, “be proud, whatever it is. ‘Cause everyone is someone.”