At the drop of a hat, any serious Madonna fan can run down the most indelible moments fromTruth or Dare (or In Bed with Madonna). The highest-grossing documentary ever at the time of its release, the film details the on-and-off-stage antics of her 1990 Blond Ambition world tour. My highlight would be when the tenacious pop princess sings a cappella with her two back-up singers outside an arena, as they hold hands and strut past impassive police “in the fascist state of Toronto,” after being told she’d face arrest on the grounds of not-very-virginal onstage crotch play.
Sure, the film seared into our collective consciousness those iconic Jean Paul Gaultier costumes and Madonna’s oft-discussed water bottle fellatio feat. But with the luxury of hindsight, what remains most groundbreaking about Truth or Dare is the way it candidly explored and embraced young queer life. At one point, hip-hopper Oliver even complains about being the only straight performer on the tour, as her six other dancers were gay men. And in a pre-So You Think You Can Dance era when dancers mostly toiled in oblivion, Truth or Dare propelled Madonna’s surrogate family of backup talents — Salim, Gabriel, Carlton, Jose, Kevin, Luis and Oliver — into the spotlight in an unprecedented way. While the dancers became role models of self-empowerment and success for millions worldwide, the touching new documentary Strike A Pose reveals that applying those ideals of freedom to their own lives proved far trickier.
“It’s impressive to see people follow what you did and, 25 years later, still appreciate you for telling your personal side of the story and getting all emotional about it. I’m so moved by that,” iconic voguer Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza tells me when we sit down with fellow dancers Kevin Stea and Salim Gauwloos for a chat at the Berlinale, where the film’s world premiere elicited rapturous cheers and heartfelt Q&A testimonials the night before. Still reeling from what Kevin describes as “the overwhelming love and look of awe in people’s eyes,” I reckon it’s just starting to dawn on them that they never stopped being role models for such a wide spectrum of fans.
Among them, Strike A Pose co-director Reijer Zwaan, a political scientist and deputy editor for a current affairs program in the Netherlands. In other words, not quite the filmmaker profile you’d expect for such a project. Zwaan agrees it’s a happy departure, explaining how the guys left a big imprint on him growing up. “It stems from a personal fascination of mine with these dancers,” recalls Zwaan. “I saw the film when I was 11 at an Amsterdam theater and was immediately mesmerized. I saw the film many times after that and wondered what had happened to them. I found people online writing about how they came out or dared to be themselves because of them. It certainly was inspiring to see a group of gay guys be so open, proud and cool. I remember being impressed with them, as was [co-director] Ester Gould.”
Upon meeting the guys separately and being completely taken by their combination of “sweetness, strength and openness,” Zwaan and Gould agreed there was a big story to tell. One that would afford the six surviving dancers (Gabriel sadly died of AIDS in 1995) a chance to speak for themselves, and open up about the inner demons that prevented them from achieving the very freedom they embodied so convincingly. “The idea of self-acceptance as being very hard for all of us, even when you are a paragon of pride, was very powerful to us,” says Zwaan. “That’s what connected all their stories for us.”
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