The title for Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan’s documentary, Strike a Pose, almost demands you finish the iconic line: “there’s nothing to it.” Madonna’s “Vogue” is as perfect an introduction to this film’s interests as anything else not least because it should ultimately conjure up in your head the dancers alongside the Queen of Pop in the David Fincher video. And of course, there’s no way of talking about those dance moves and that black and white video without invoking José Gutiérrez and Luis Camacho (both of the Xtravaganza house in New York) — it was the two of them, a couple back then, who choreographed the video and who had introduced the Material Girl onto the ballroom scene where voguing was thriving in the late 80s.
José and Luis would go on to join Madonna’s Blond Ambition tour as well as be part of the infamous 1991 Madonna: Truth or Dare documentary which gave fans a titillating look at what went down behind close doors during that scandalous tour. The dancers are back in the spotlight as part of Gould and Zwaan’s documentary which catches us up with Madonna’s male dancers from that tour and explores what each of them have been up to since having been thrown into the limelight alongside one of the most influential pop artists of the twentieth century.
“It was such a gift,” Luis tells me. “You know, we were two Latin kids from, I don’t want to say ‘the ghetto,’ but not the best part of town. And for both of us to have this opportunity as Latinos, was major. We didn’t feel that at the time but looking back, it was such a great opportunity.”
On paper, Strike a Pose may sound like Truth or Dare at 25: Where Are They Now?, a type of Behind the Music special that would nevertheless keep the Queen of Pop as the gravitational force of the six remaining male dancers (the seventh, Gabriel Trupin, still referred to as Madonna’s favorite, passed away from AIDS in the mid 90s). That’s what made both Latino dancers hesitate about joining the project. Luis outright admitted that he ignored the original email that told him of the project; he thought it might be the type of interview requests he’d been happily avoiding all these years: “I mean, how many times can you answer the question, ‘Is she a bitch or not?’”
José, the last one to agree to come on board, was equally wary. Persuaded by fellow dancers, Kevin Stea and Salim ‘Slam’ Gauwloos — who’d already been in talks with the Dutch pair — both eventually caved and met with the directing duo. Coasts apart (Luis now lives in sunny LA, José still lives in NYC), they were won over by the project. The film, they understood, would be about all of them not her, “She-Who-Shall-Remain-Nameless,” Luis quipped. “Yes we miss her, and we think about her,” José admitted. “I’m sure she does as well. But we’ve all moved on. We didn’t want it to seem like a big Madonna bash,” he told me.
“You know, we were two Latin kids from, I don’t want to say ‘the ghetto,’ but not the best part of town. And for both of us to have this opportunity as Latinos, was major.”
While Madonna is center stage (quite literally) at the start of the film, in clips from the tour and in archival footage, she very quickly cedes the screen to her dancers. Finally freed from being in the background, these men are put in the spotlight and as the film unfolds, you can see them basking and straining under its glare. Secrets they’d kept from each other (and from themselves) in the intervening decades become the central focus of the film. We hear tales of addiction and recovery, of then-unspeakable diagnoses and brave struggles, of career downturns and resilient comebacks. Strike a Pose is particularly touching in its depiction of middle-aged dancers who all struggled to come down from the career and addictive high of having traveled the world in one of the most talked about tours of all time.
One of the most affecting scenes in the film comes courtesy of José’s mother. Seated at her home, in the apartment where he grew up (“Did you see the plastic coverings over the sofas?” he asked me while fighting back laughter, “She loves them!”) he’s tasked with translating as his mom explains to Ester and Reijer off-camera that she’s always been disappointed that her son didn’t turn the momentum he’d had back then into a more successful career. She wishes he’d have made enough money to at least buy her a house. She says so neither with cruelty nor candor. “I never knew she still felt like that!” he confessed on the phone. “You know, the last time I’d heard anything like that was 25 years ago!” It’s clear watching the clip that the interview had dredged up a lot of unspoken stuff between them and in the English-Spanish back and forth, we gather that she’s none the wiser about the “dark times” that her son lived through following his success in the early 90s.
Luis speaks more openly about his own dark times in the film. His road to recovery from drugs and alcoholism, “the biggest learning experience” of his life, has allowed him to approach Strike a Pose with a more level head, embracing the opportunity to tell his story and perhaps yet again offer a voice of advice and caution to those watching. He admits he was too young a boy when he went on tour; he cackles over the phone remembering how unabashed he was in front of the Truth or Dare cameras. “I mean, I was this kid from the Lower East Side. I always dreamt of being in that position. I’d ask, what do you want me to do? What do you want me to say?” What he couldn’t have known back then is how much of an impact that documentary would still have. As José put it, you never set out to move a nation, but the correspondence him and the other dancers keep getting suggest they’ve become inadvertent role models in their own right.
It may have taken 25 years to get the band back together, but they are intent on making the most of it. Both teased that the group of boys have big things planned for the future while José seemed just as excited to talk about his involvement in Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming Netflix series The Get Down where he served as consultant and got to work alongside Jayden Smith (“A very special boy. So ahead of his time! So free-spirited”). He was proud to say that Luhrmann had been so impressed with him that he’d actually gotten him in front of the camera for some scenes. Even Australian visionaries, it seems, cannot help but see what’s made Father José Xtravaganza, as he’s known in the ballroom scene, an icon in his own right.
Strike a Pose is playing at the Tribeca Film Festival from April 13 – 24, 2016. We partnered with Tribeca to give you a behind-the-scenes look at the Latino talent at this year’s fest. Follow our coverage on remezcla.com and tribecafilm.com.