TORONTO — All these years later, the male dancers from Madonna's iconic 1990 Blond Ambition tour still have a few regrets.
Among them is letting their tight-knit group of twentysomethings drift apart after a whirlwind run of global concerts with the Material Girl.
"I felt like I had so much to say to them and I didn't get a chance," says Jose (Xtravaganza) Gutierez while sitting alongside some of his fellow dancers.
"I never told these guys I love them, but I realized from the minute I left them."
The documentary "Strike a Pose," which airs Saturday on TVO before becoming available to stream nationwide, finally reconnects most of the group to reflect on being cultural influencers. They've all matured and evolved, but none of them have heard from Madonna in decades.
It almost doesn't matter, though, as their connection seems as strong as ever.
The film helps rekindle their friendships as it retraces the steps which brought them under Madonna's wing — before they were spat out to deal with fame. It's a bittersweet story that unspools amid the HIV epidemic and the unpredictability of youth.
Three of the dancers — Gutierez, Kevin Stea and Oliver Crumes — chatted with The Canadian Press about their roles in popularizing vogue, a stylized performance of model-like poses that originated from drag shows in 1980s Harlem before becoming a global sensation under Madonna.
CP: Jose, you were an active voguer before Madonna hired you. What were those early days in New York City like for you?
Gutierez: (Voguing) was a very gay, urban underground dance in gay clubs and hangouts. Prior to that it has been around for like 50 or 60 years (but it took) somebody like Madonna to bring it mainstream. I was able to mix my professional (dance) training into the underground form.
Stea: You changed the game. Jose's a trained dancer so he brought all these technical skills — his elasticity, his flexibility — and that changed it from more showy into an actual dance form. Working with Madonna ... created this really strong gay-straight alliance. It brought the gays dancing with the straights. There's a common ground in dance and music.
CP: And voguing still thrives in places like New York, Toronto and some other Canadian cities where the "ballroom" culture still exists.
Gutierez: From then to now it's changed drastically. Now they call it "vogue with dramatics." They're spinning and you see their hair — and then they drop on the floor. It's definitely evolved from when it started to when I presented it to Madonna. Now it's something totally different.
Stea: The old vogue seemed very presentational, about confidence and strength, and the new one is about showing off and drama.
CP: Yeah, those twirl-and-drop moves you mentioned seem a little dangerous. You could really smack your head on the floor.
Gutierez: Every time they do it I go, "Ow, there goes your back in 10 years."
Stea: Just concussions.
Gutierez: Don't get me wrong, voguing has evolved, and that's what it is. But I think it loses (something). Vogue is borrowed from the magazine so it should maintain that attitude, that silhouette, and shouldn't be something so frantic.
CP: When you look back at the Blond Ambition tour, how do you think it compares to today's arena shows?
Stea: I see the attention to storytelling. And the theatrical arc has never quite been matched. (Art director) Vince Patterson's attention to how your eye is going to perceive this show, where the themes will ebb and flow, it just doesn't happen anymore.
Gutierez: Now (there's) 50 dancers, back then it was just seven of us. There was nobody to hide behind. It was more theatre. Now it's like: the costume, the big head piece and the stage set. It just distracts from the dancing and storytelling.
CP: Oliver, you were the lone straight guy on the tour. The documentary presents you as this kind of flamboyant tough guy from the hip-hop world hired to give Madonna's tour some edge. What was it like learning to vogue from scratch?
Crumes: I'd never, ever heard of it until I (listened to "Vogue") and saw Jose and Louis (Camacho, another dancer) teaching us. It was like a new way of style — to give attitude, to be sure you're self-confident. It didn't come natural, but they made the choreography very easy for us.
CP: In the 1991 concert film "Madonna: Truth or Dare" you come across as pretty homophobic at times, using a derogatory word to describe your fellow dancers, but in "Strike a Pose" you have a reckoning with your past views. Can you talk about how that happened?
Crumes: I never remember saying (those words in the film). I saw it recently and I got scared .... I could easily get thrown under the bus ... or hated by the community, even though it was done in 1990. (Crumes pulls a piece of paper from his pocket and begins to read) Twenty-five years ago I was very young and naive ... and being in the entertainment business all my life, working with all types of personalities, I have come to see we are all human beings, who have emotions, hearts and feelings. The only thing that makes us different is our choice of different or same genders to love.
CP: What are you reading?
Crumes: I wrote this with my wife over the weekend. I've always wanted to say it (but) I didn't have enough time to memorize it. I know there's a lot of — not just men — but women who are like I used to be, to this day. There are still kids getting beat up in school. If someone's gay or a lesbian, they can still get bullied. During the tour I learned so much.
After airing on TVO, "Strike a Pose" will be available to stream nationwide on TVO.org for 14 days.
— This interview has been edited and condensed.
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David Friend, The Canadian Press