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Say the word "vogue" and "Madonna" and the iconic video with the amazing dance moves come to mind. Twenty five years later, a new documentary, “Strike a Pose,” catches up with six dancers, who unknowingly, would become icons to legions of dancers and gay kids worldwide.
In the early 1990’s, Madonna, then a rising pop star, was so thirsty to know about "voguing" she asked one of her bodyguards to take off his pants so that a young Dominican American dancer from the Lower East Side of New York City, José Gutiérrez, could borrow them and show her a dance craze that was the rage in the underground black and Latino gay scene of the city.
José, 18, was a classically trained dancer (much to Madonna’s surprise) and part of the underground ballroom dance duo, The House of Extravaganza, along with his best friend a young Puerto Rican teen, Luis Camacho.
José told NBC Latino about his life-changing moment with the superstar:
"I was at the Sound Factory, an after-hours spot where we went to dance all night long. A mutual friend, Debbie Mazar whispered to me that Madonna was in the club and wanted to see me. Madonna went straight to the point, she was very direct and asked, “Can I see you do this vogue thing I keep hearing about.” I loved fashion, because of course, fashion is part of the expression and what you wear to the club is part of the performance and I didn’t want my clothes sweaty or dirty. And she saw me pause and says, “It’s your pants right?”
"Then she tells her bodyguard to give me his pants. We went to the bathroom and changed. Wearing this stranger’s pants I did what I usually do, I danced my ass off. Then as more people found out that she was there everyone began to show their moves. It was a wild scene. I sat with Madonna and pointed out the best of what I saw.”
The moment changed the teenager’s life. In a matter of months, José was part of seven male dancers, all gay except for one, who joined the singer in her most controversial and successful Blond Ambition Tour.
“I am picked out of oblivion to be part of the famous singer’s dance crew,” José said. “We beat out seven thousand other dancers.”
Madonna was amazed to learn José was classically trained. He had his eyes on joining the renowned modern dance company, Alvin Ailey, since receiving a scholarship in the third grade.
“I didn’t know where the arts would take me; I was so young but I knew I wanted to express myself through dance,” he said. “I just went on a journey with Madonna, it was never about the money, it was about dance and self expression on the stage,” acknowledging that the opportunity was every young dancer’s dream.
For years it’s been the rumored in Alphabet City - now called the Lower East Side - which was once a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood, that that the Michigan born star “borrowed” from the urban black and Puerto Rican culture of the neighborhood. People have pointed to her signature red lipstick and the hoop earrings sported by Puerto Rican girls at the time, as well as the fluid dance styles of the young men and women.
The documentary confirms it. It was the Latino and black drag scene of New York City where Madonna went fishing for inspiration.
And it’s clear the impact the men made on the world that twenty-five years later, we are still talking and writing about them.
"She was smart about tapping into the culture and the gay urban scene. She knew where to go get it," said José.
The film reunites the dancers and recalls the aftereffects of Madonna’s decision to turn her backstage sexually provocative antics with the talented dancers – all young men of color - into the groundbreaking documentary, “Truth or Dare,” which featured the first “gay kiss” and which outed the teenagers, some ironically, not ready to express themselves and tell the world about their sexuality or their HIV status.
“We were just being ourselves, young, free, and having a ball,” José says of those glorious days.
With Luis, José choreographed her infamous “Vogue” video and was nominated for an MTV Award.
After the legendary tour, which grossed $60 million dollars, José continued to work with Madonna and was featured with Luis in the “Justify My Love” music video. In 1993 Madonna sang background vocals on their smash club hit “Queens English.”
They are not in touch anymore, but he is not bitter. "It was a moment in time, a good moment," he said.
One of the most touching moments of the film takes place when the cameras visit José in his humble childhood home in the Lower East Side. He sits in the small apartment living room with his mother, a Dominican immigrant who is feeling a certain kind of way that her famous and extraordinarily talented son did not buy her the house of her dreams. In between sobs, José translates the moment. You can see clearly the demands and strains of fame.
For the most part, the men have led private lives; one is a waiter, two others, Luis and Salim, fell into drug addiction, homelessness and got clean. All continue to dance. José for his part teaches voguing workshops all over the world, from to Mexico to Russia and to LGBT youth in his hometown of New York City. He has recently collaborated with Baz Luhrmann in the Netflix series, “The Get Down.”
But there is one thing that still perplexes the dancer.
“I don’t understand why voguing is not on par with ballet,” he says. “Voguing is part of dance curriculums in dance schools. It’s elegant, sculptural and an outlandish art form. We don’t have names for the moves, but it’s just as beautiful and powerful as any other form of dance.”
Strike a Pose airs Thursday night at 8pET on LOGO.