Daring to Be Truthful: Madonna's Dancers and HIV

Madonna with her dancers and others, in Paris
Strike a Pose

1990 was scary. Thank God for Madonna.

At a time when the HIV/AIDS crisis was in full swing and everyone was telling us that sex was frightening, Madonna was boldly and controversially flaunting sex in her music and concerts and videos. She encouraged us all to leave all our troubles behind and "get up on the dance floor." To further stimulate our imaginations, she had some of the sexiest, hottest dancers backing her up. Those seven men (along with two fierce women), each sexier than the next, moved with unreal agility, countering the fear of the times with erotic charisma and attitude.

Who could have known from watching the cocky, confident performances on MTV and on stage that three of the dancers were living with the secret of being HIV positive. Carlton Wilborn, Salim Gauwloos and Gabriel Trupin had all been diagnosed before being chosen out of hundreds of dancers to tour with Madonna.

Two of the dancers -- Carlton and Salim -- told me what it was like to be living with the virus in secret.

"I thought it would absolutely paralyze me," Carlton told me, in a phone interview.

"I remember it so vividly," Salim said, when we talked on the phone. "Am I going to die? Is [Madonna] going to do a speech about me? Everyone was dying around me. ... But when I danced, I wasn't scared. I didn't think I was going to die. I was free."

Carlton's and Salim's journeys, along with those of the other five male dancers, Luis Camacho, Oliver Crumes, Jose Gutierez, Kevin Stea, and Gabriel Trupin (who passed away from AIDS in 1995), are the subject of the award-winning documentary, Strike a Pose, which will air on Logo on Thursday April 6 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

The film shows their experiences on the Blond Ambition Tour and in the Truth or Dare movie, and what happened to the dancers afterwards.

Carlton said of the Tour, "I was not, when we were on the job, not that connected with the guys at all. They were so authentic and wild and flamboyant, that it wasn't a part of what I was about. Really, it freaked me out at the time." As he got older, he started to wonder what became of the other guys. "I felt so bonded and connected, and I really didn't know how much those guys meant to me," he said.

A truly heartbreaking section in Strike a Pose is when Gabriel Tupin's mother talks about him, his career and the tragedy of losing her son to AIDS. For Carlton, this was especially sad. "I found out about his passing probably seven years after. The most impactful thing about Gabriel's journey was the mother component. Following her story about losing a son, ... all of this is very moving to me, extra moving to me."

Both Carlton and Salim bravely open up about their HIV status in the documentary. Salim has a heartfelt moment in the film when he breaks down in tears; he had kept his status private since his 1987 diagnosis.

Salim Gauwloos, today (Courtesy of Strike a Pose)
Salim Gauwloos, today
Strike a Pose

Salim had to tell his family about his HIV status before they attended a screening of Strike a Pose. "The only one who knew my secret was my mother," he said. "I wasn't ashamed," he explained, "I didn't want people to worry about me, the mothering thing. That's what I was scared of."

"All of our moms are important to us," Salim commented. "I am who I am because of my mom."

Carlton told me that sharing his status through the film has been remarkable. "You know, dude, honestly, this whole Strike a Pose experience has been so monumental for me. It has set my soul free. Never in my wildest dreams did I anticipate this area that was so crippling [for] me would be the most celebrated in my life."

One of the more amazing aspects of the film is how the six living dancers have weathered life challenges yet emerged with dance still an important part of their lives. Salim travels a lot, choreographs fashion shows and is on faculty at Broadway Dance Center in New York City.

When you dance, "you connect to something, someone," he said. "You sweat! It's about connecting to that higher power."

Carlton also continues to perform as a dancer and actor, as well as life coaching through dance.

"The reality is that when you are born to be a gypsy or an artist, that's just DNA or whatever. It's not a choice, it just is," Carlton said. "We don't choose to eat because we know we are hungry, no, we eat because it's part of our lifeline. Dance is like that."

Many have imagined what it would be like to be on the worldwide stage with a star as big as Madonna, but what it would like to leave that arena and build a life afterward is unfathomable. Carlton and Salim have come out sexy, strong and healthy, like superstars.