“Truth or Dare when you’re 20 is about showing your penis,” Reijer Zwaan says, “but when you’re 45, it’s about showing your truth, whether that’s a nice truth or a more difficult one.”
The Dutch director of the new documentary “Strike A Pose” is talking about the childhood party game that throws players on the horns of honesty or performance. But his latest is much more concerned with the definition of “Truth or Dare” we’ve come to know from the 1991 film wherein Madonna plucks seven young dancers out of obscurity for her ground-breaking Blond Ambition world tour. And while that film’s mantra was “express yourself,” the entire troupe held onto dark secrets that only a quarter of a century later they are ready to lay bare.
“I saw ‘Truth or Dare’ when I was only 11-years-old,” Zwaan remembers. “I went to the cinema with my step-mom, sister and father thinking why should I see a film about Madonna? Two hours later, I thought, can I please see this again right now? It made such an impact with this larger-than-life world of Madonna on tour, but also with these seven fierce guys. I was not that aware of the sexuality being expressed at 11, but something intrigued me.”
“I walked into this gig not knowing what I was up for,” Oliver Crumes remembers on a phone call from Las Vegas, where he now calls home. “I come from the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. I grew up in the projects. “Many will remember him as Ollie, the troupe’s bleached-blond, youngest member, and also its lone heterosexual. Madonna playfully elbows him in David Fincher’s “Vogue” video. “If someone was gay,” the colorfully dressed Crumes announced in the 1991 film, “I’d probably punch him out.”
Cut to 25-years later in Zwaan’s film and baby-faced dancer Luis Camacho lovingly exclaims, “How can you be homophobic? You look like a parrot!” But if Crumes journey was one of overcoming homophobia to accept his troupe as a band of brothers, Camacho’s arc is about a dark descent into heroin. After the tour, hanging out on a Saturday afternoon with Madonna in her Los Feliz home, Camacho quickly realized she wasn’t the kind of friend to stick around for something as thorny as addiction.
A portrait of Madonna emerges as someone who doesn’t have time for fallibility, let alone living with HIV. On stage, she and her backup singers play slags teasing the dancers about rubbers until Madonna utters that immortal line, “Hey you, don’t be silly, put a condom on your willy.” HIV prevention PSA embedded in a pop tour: game-changing, but one of those boys, Gabriel Trupin, would be dead of AIDS five years later, blindsiding other company members. Indeed, a near majority had both adrenaline and HIV coursing through their veins sharing the stage with their staunch, HIV-preventionist capo.
Carlton Wilborn, the dancer of whom Madonna announces, “It’s blue!” after he whips it out in bed with her, remembers a different kind of blue in “Strike A Pose.” Learning he’s HIV-positive while on the tour, company doctors tell him they need to inform his boss. “There is no fucking way you will tell,” the only troupe member to “Hunger Games” his way into the singer’s next tour—1993’s The Girlie Show—remembers shouting back. Crumes recalls a similar medical emergency when he collapsed from asthma, but kept the entire incident from Madonna.
Salim Gauwloos—immortalized as Slam—explains even a backstage movie has its own backstage that no one was ready to enter, but that’s not exactly an environment that lends itself to a post-show HIV sharing circle. Contrast that with Keith Haring, the pop artist dead at 31 two months before Blond Ambition launched. Madonna describes her friend as “a man who had the courage to tell the truth, and the truth is he had AIDS.” It’s an austere dichotomy: rubbered-up, HIV-negative sex machine or infected Ibsenian ghost, but whatever else he was, Haring was not on Madonna’s payroll, worth about 25 million when he cashed out.
“You don’t want to get hurt,” Zwaan agrees about the working dancer, “you don’t want to get the flu, you don’t want to have anything because it’s a business being run, a concert tour like that, and, on the personal level, they didn’t have anyone replacing them. It was just the seven of them. Now, there’s 30 dancers on stage and stand-ins waiting in the wings, but back then it was just seven and Madonna.
Strike the heroin, HIV stigma, even the dancers’ infamous 1992 lawsuit: would Madonna still be around for afternoon hangs in Los Feliz? “Wow,” Zwaan replies, “that’s a big what if? But when you look at our film, it’s all about life: falling down and getting back up on your feet. And that goes for all of us. When you’re the age they were on tour, you feel you could rule the world. Then comes life and you have to deal with whatever comes your way.”