‘Strike a Pose’ dancer on Madonna, collaboration and hiding HIV status

No matter how long Madonna continues her reign as the Queen of Pop, the height of her presence in the pop culture zeitgeist came at the beginning of the 1990s, with the combination of her “Vogue” single and music video, Blond Ambition Tour and “Truth or Dare” documentary. This was Madonna courting controversy and still achieving wild commercial success, a balance she hasn’t always maintained.

During this period, Madonna relied on a group of seven male dancers who achieved their own flirtations with fame. As “Truth or Dare” celebrates its 25th anniversary, a new documentary, “Strike a Pose,” (the opening night feature at this year’s Out On Film festival) takes a look at these men during their time with the Queen of Pop, and how their lives have unfolded over the years. For Carlton Wilborn, one of the dancers, that focus was enough to get him on board.

“It’s always been interesting,” says Wilborn, “because throughout the 25 years since ‘Truth or Dare,’ we have all been getting some sort of invitation to do something related to either her or speaking about the project, which I’ve always declined. But there was…a real thoroughness to their email, and very specifically, it was that they said out the gate that they wanted to create a project that honored our voice, the dancers’ voice, and anything that we needed to say, that we didn’t have a chance to say.”

Madonna and dancers were ‘comrade actors’

For Wilborn, it was a chance to reflect on what he refers to as “a double-edged experience.” He’s quick to point out that working with Madonna was “phenomenal,” because “she is the kind of artist who is so solid in her own power, that she really encourages other artists to bring everything out of them.”

He points specifically to the performance of “Oh Father,” which found him working with Madonna as more than a dancer.

“When we were putting that together, she and I got to work as comrade actors and talk about it as a scene, and where we were coming from in regards to being characters, not just doing a dance thing. So that was this great creative union for me, and the fact that she supported me with that, and we got to really just have such a featured moment to capitalize on all of our skills in that kind of way was quite cool.”

Hiding HIV status on tour

At the same time, Wilborn was keeping a secret from Madonna and his fellow dancers: he had been diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1985.

“By the time I got to her in 1990, I was clearly dealing with that, and I was in such shame about that. So I was hiding all of that throughout that tour, and the second tour that I did, because I got invited back to do The Girlie Show. I wish I had been freer in my soul at the time to really relish in it, but I wasn’t.”

With “Strike a Pose,” Wilborn is taking the opportunity to open up about his HIV status to the world. While he may wish he had felt more free to talk about his status years ago, he’s floored by the response he’s received.

“Everybody’s got a journey. This thing is specific to everyone. And I say ‘thing,’ because one of the amazing things about this year with ‘Strike a Pose’ that I never saw coming is the fact that, the exact same thing that I thought would absolutely marginalize my life – that information, my diagnosis, it being public, the way people perceive me in the industry – is the exact information that’s getting me to be celebrated at a level I’ve never had in my entire career. That’s incredible irony. It’s important for everyone to realize that their own journey is supposed to be its distinct testimonial for somebody and for a critical time in this place called Earth. Mine was supposed to be withheld, the way that it was, for as long as it was, so that the impact of my conversation would have a resonance into the right heart and the right soul today.”

‘None of us saw this coming’

If the making of “Strike a Pose” has taught Wilborn anything, it’s to keep a positive attitude about life, even during troubling times.

“Really be careful how far you assess what is happening in your life,” Wilborn says. “’Strike a Pose’ came about as the result of two people – our amazing directors, Reijer Zwaan and Ester Gould – reaching out and saying, ‘We’ve been following you for seven years, unbeknownst to you,’ meaning they’ve been strategizing to do something of good that would elevate me and my life.

“It didn’t just happen for me as one person. This jumped off for seven human beings in the world – me and all the other guys. None of us saw this coming, but the same activity was happening in the shadows, so to speak, and here we are today. So the message is: stay hopeful, stay knowing, stay declaring – even in the midst of a storm – that good is happening for me. That the universe is working for me. That God has good for me. And just be in the wonder of it.”

“Strike A Pose” opening night screening at Out On Film festival
Thursday, Sept. 29 at 7 p.m.
Landmark Midtown Art Cinema