Madonna’s OG dancers on what it was like to Vogue with her in the ’90s

When I was in my teens, nobody in my neighborhood laughed at Madonna. It didn’t matter if she wore something questionably sexy or ridiculous, you just didn’t play her. She experimented with designers and flirted with sartorial and political disaster all the time. She was not afraid to anger the fashion prudes—let alone the Pope. In fact, Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone was the most brazenly opinionated, forward-thinking pop star of her day.

Madge experienced the kind of quasi-untouchable #Lemonade R-E-S-P-E-C-T that Beyoncé is feeling right now. In the early ’90s, with the creation and release of albums Like A Prayer, I’m Breathless and Erotica, Ms. Ciccone put civil liberties on Billboard, decades before hashtags and Gaga surfaced. She was constantly sticking her neck out with messages that were pro-Gay, pro-Black and pro-Woman and she relished kicking the status quo in the ass.

So much of that power is captured in the 1991 movie Madonna: Truth or Dare. Alek Keshishian’s black and white documentary observes the Material Girl at her ballsiest, bitchiest and most belligerent. Shot during a small slip of time when Madonna’s Blond Ambition took her sexuality and wavering faith on a musical tour around the world, Truth or Dare gave audiences something they hadn’t seen on such a grand scale before…a portrait of a strong fearless woman who liked to explore the complexities of gender and sex. But Madonna’s greatest stroke of genius happened weeks before her tour began on March 20, 1990, when she released the most important track of her career: “Vogue”.

“Vogue” catapulted Madge from pop starlet to bonafide icon. As Truth or Dare conveys, Madonna’s collaboration with the five gay dancers who taught her to vogue gave her much more than just a few fierce dance moves. Those men—Kevin Stea, Jose Guitierez, Salim Gauwloos, Luis Camacho and Gabriel Trupin—went on to not only change Madonna’s life but they managed to shift her world view.

Filmmaker Ester Gould was so intrigued by the way Ciccone’s documentary showcased the dancers—who danced in the legendary “Vogue” video as well as the tour—that 25 years after Truth or Dare hit the theatres, Gould decided to make her own doc called Strike A Pose.

The film movingly catches up with each dancer and takes care of all the “where are they now?” and the “what have they been through?” moments you could think of. Guiterez and Stea were recently in Toronto to screen the film at Hot Docs and talk about the fallout from being with the pop matriarch during what they call her “artistic peak.”

On having supermodel status in the ’90s dance world:
“After Truth or Dare was out, we were treated like stars in clubs. I never bought a drink. I had people coming up to me saying that seeing us on screen helped them come out. People put us on a pedestal. We were unaware that people in the community would be looking to us as if we had all the answers.”

On auditioning for Madonna:
“I’ve never seen so many people at an audition in my life. It wrapped around the street and you could tell, Madonna wasn’t just choosing people to work with, it was like she was choosing a family. She thought we were her kids.” — Kevin Stea

On performing in Italy while going against the Vatican’s wishes:
“It was crazy! We were sold out in Italy but it felt like so many were hating her and us. We had bomb threats at the stadium and the hotel. [The backup singers] were getting phone threats. The Catholic Church went against the show and basically said it was a sin to see it. It felt like the nation was pushing us out. You have to understand, people thought we were a threat to their souls and their lives. Security would fling people out of the way just so we wouldn’t get hurt.” –Jose Guitierez

On the draw backs of being in Truth or Dare:
“This whole world of activism and LGBTQ pride was very new to me. I was experiencing coming out on camera, just like everyone else. On the other side, there was so much fear. When the movie came out, it was touted as ‘Madonna and her gay dancers’ —and I kept thinking, ‘oh god, did I just commit career suicide?’ Michael Jackson actually didn’t hire me for his tour because the movie and the Madonna tour. He had gay dancers but they were not as outwardly or openly gay as I was.” —Kevin Stea

On almost getting arrested in Toronto:
“When we were stopped by the cops and were supposed to be shut down and warned not to be too risky on stage, I was ready. I just pushed the envelope even more when I was doing the “Like A Virgin” number. My heart was beating. It was one of the most exciting shows.” —Jose Guitierez

On whether or not “Vogue” sold out the gay community:
“I disagree with the people that said that Madonna took vogueing and sold it to Kmart and sold the gay community’s culture as well. If anything, she kept it authentic, she didn’t go out of the community—she handpicked us for a reason. That was her way of giving back in a conservative time. Who else could of done that?” —Jose Guitierez

On dealing with the reality of a pandemic:
“The most difficult thing for me while I was touring and celebrating this big job I landed with Madonna was checking in back home. You see all my friends were dying from HIV-related cases. I was supposed to be happy about this great accomplishment but there was no one there for me to feel that love and adulation with. When I got back from the tour, many of my friends were gone. Everyone got really scared.” —Jose Guitierez

On being called “emotionally crippled” by Madonna in Truth or Dare:
“She didn’t know us enough to say that. I got so mad she said that. Part of me thought she could have been watching Paris Is Burning too much or that she wanted to keep the drama up in the movie. At the end of the tour she called me ‘emotionally unavailable’ but we were way too emotional! All the time. We were too available.” —Kevin Stea

On being fitted by Jean Paul Gaultier for the video “Vogue”:
“Gaultier fit us personally— he would come into the changerooms and see us dancing and work around us moving and shaking with his pins and his assistant. I still have the pinstripe suit from “Vogue” and the cage costume from “Keep It Together”. These pieces weren’t just things we put on. They helped us express and helped our bodies make shadows and shapes on the stage or in the Vogue video. The Vogue stage stuff—the Gaultier tights with the straps at the back were everything. They were sheer on the butt and they were sexier than any menswear at the time.” —Jose Guitierez

On what Madonna learned from them:
“Looking back now, it was her biggest moment in her career. It was a comeback. She had just released this album [I’m Breathless] that didn’t do as well as her last. We were also so fashionably inclined. Growing up in clubs in New York City, you had to dress up—she got that certain urban edge from us that she definitely did not have. It went hand in hand with the voguing. That sense of high fashion style is what we brought to the table.” —Jose Guitierez

On what they represented:
“In the movie, I think Luis says something to the effect that our “flamboyance was a warning to all people… that it shouldn’t mistake any of our extravagance or expression as a sign of weakness because it was the opposite. It was a sign of our strength.” —Jose Guitierez

On the most important message Madonna made with her dancers:
“We thought the most important button to push was the notion of bringing the gay and straight community together. We’re all human and we can live together.
Also: I think because we are from different backgrounds, which in itself is powerful. Our upbringings, backgrounds and sexualities were diverse. There was such a homogenous bend in the commercial world, in the pop music world, in the film world…everything was very white, buff and blonde. I remember going to castings and that was all they wanted. Madonna went completely against the grain to show that there are other types of beauty and value and it’s not based on your background, your looks, your race or sex. And that was something that we are only seeing coming to light now…” — Kevin Stea

More Celebrity