In 1990, Madonna’s Blond Ambition tour was one of the most controversial and talked-about events in entertainment history. The tour, which made more than £40m – a record at the time, also made stars out of her seven male backing dancers, who also featured in the 1991 film In Bed With Madonna. Now those dancers have their own documentary – Strike a Pose, directed by Dutch film-makers Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan.
The tour featured Madonna’s hit singles Like A Prayer, Express Yourself, Like A Virgin and Vogue, and the singer, wearing her now iconic Jean-Paul Gaultier corset, drew complaints from religious groups for her provocative performances on stage, while shocking the society of 25 years ago by openly discussing HIV, Aids and homosexuality.
The film reunites six of the seven dancers – Carlton Wilborn, Salim Gauwloos, Oliver Crumes III, Luis Camacho, Jose Gutierez and Kevin Stea – while the seventh, Gabriel Trupin, who died of complications due to Aids in 1995, is represented by his mother, Sue Trupin.
Director Zwaan remembers being 11 years old when he saw In Bed With Madonna and said the dancers inspired him “because they were out and proud – it taught me what was possible”.
“It was 1990, and it was the height of the Aids epidemic, and society was going through a backlash,” he says.
“I felt there was so much prejudice towards gay people – to be homosexual at the time implied you might have HIV or Aids.
“It was not an easy time to be gay.
“But there on stage, and then in the film, was Madonna and her dancers, and six of them were gay, and Madonna was discussing those friends she had lost to the disease rather than keeping silent.
“I just found it very inspiring and helpful.”
Zwaan and his co-director, Gould, tracked down the six men, who still worked in the world of dance and entertainment, and, after persuasion, reunited them for the first time in two decades.
It was an experience Crumes III recalls as “joyful”.
“We are like brothers, we have this bond because of those experiences we shared a quarter of a century ago,” he says.
“This reunion has just brought tears to all of us, and, amazingly, we picked up where we left off.”
“I don’t think we realised how much of ourselves were missing until we saw each other again,” Stea adds.
“Really, that tour was a formative time for me in that it gave me permission to explore who I was, explore my sexuality.
“We were all from such different backgrounds, it just opened my mind to what was possible from the world.”
However, the dancers were subjected to heavy media scrutiny, which, along with the social standards of the time, meant life on the tour and afterwards wasn’t always easy.
Zwaan highlights “the contrast between the image of all those guys up there telling people, ‘Express Yourself’, while at the same time they were all struggling to be open about who they are – it’s a very compelling story”.
In Strike A Pose, some of the men admit to later experiences of alcoholism and drug addiction, while three of the dancers were HIV positive but wanted to keep it secret while on the Blond Ambition tour.
Gauwloos says he was often “petrified” on stage, whenever Madonna discussed Aids with the crowd.
Wilburn recalls forbidding a doctor treating him to tell the star he was unwell, and says he felt “shame about my condition”.
“I couldn’t even discuss it with my family,” he says.
“Madonna felt able to discuss it openly, but we felt we couldn’t.
“There was such a backlash against it. ”
What made most headlines in 1991, however, was a scene in the documentary In Bed With Madonna, where Gauwloos and Trupin share a kiss.
At the time, two men kissing openly made global news headlines.
Sue Trupin, Gabriel’s mother, says in Strike A Pose that Madonna’s decision to include it and expose her son’s sexuality “wasn’t a statement that he wanted to make”.
Trupin, along with Stea and Crumes, went on to take legal action against Madonna in 1992 for what they saw as an invasion of their privacy, before settling out of court two years later.
However, while Madonna turned down giving an interview for Strike A Pose, she did give permission for archive footage to be used.
“It was very clear to us that the story was supposed to be about the dancers,” says Gould.
“We are just not interested in gossiping about Madonna.
“Of course, there was a certain pressure on us to try and include her, particularly from film financiers, but it would have severely changed the film.
“While we would have loved a reunion at the end, we are very proud of the film as it is, and it’s not her celebrity power making audiences watch it.”
The remaining six say that, after rediscovering each other, they are now planning on working together again.
And Wilburn says he would love to see Madonna again – “just really to show her what happened to us after the tour ended”.
None of the group has seen the superstar for years, but Stea calls her “a vanguard of freedom” for speaking up in the media when the subject of HIV was taboo.
“These days, I am thankful and grateful to her,” he says.
“I don’t think a tour such as the one we did could happen right now.
“With the new pop stars, it’s become an absolute spectacle, and most artists won’t move back into storytelling.
“The Blond Ambition tour was more than a set of headlines – there was an art to it, and each song was crafted to blend into the other.
“It was one of a kind.”
“I respect her more now as a person than I did back then,” adds Crumes III.
“I like her more than ever.
“I see the pattern of how she’s evolved herself – she is so clever.
“Back in our day, I just saw her as another person.
“Now, I see her as a pop icon, someone who analysed the culture around her and made some really smart decisions.”