It’s Pride month and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. New York City–especially Broadway Dance Center–is celebrating love loud and proud by walking in the Pride March again and hosting special Pride March fundraiser classes. Amidst all this joy, pride, and celebration, it’s important to remember how far we’ve come (and also how far we still have to go) in the fight for LGBTQIA+ rights and respect.
The arts reflect life, and the dance world has often ignited social change (Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey are but two choreographic changemakers that come to mind). It’s not quite a surprise, then, to know that the dance community had a huge influence on making “gay” visible, accepted, and mainstream.
Let’s start with some cultural history. Back in 1991, Madonna released the “Truth or Dare” documentary which followed her Blond Ambition World Tour and shined a spotlight on her seven backup dancers–Carlton Wilborn, Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza, Oliver Crumes, Luis Camacho, Kevin Stea, Gabriel Trupin, and BDC’s own Salim (aka “Slam”) Gauwloos. These young men were flamboyant, confident, sexy, and unapologetically themselves. They had style, they had grace…you know the rest! Keep in mind, this was 1991–before the Internet, before marriage equality, before “Will & Grace,” before the reality TV takeover, and definitely well before Facebook. The documentary changed lives and inspired millions. While you can go watch “Truth or Dare” online (or a more recent documentary, “Strike a Pose,” also profiling these seven back-up dancers and currently available on Netflix and iTunes), we wanted to delve deeper into this story. We got the chance to speak intimately with Slam who teaches contemporary dance here at Broadway Dance Center. So, how did a ballet dancer from Belgium get thrust into the spotlight not only as a Madonna dancer, but unintentionally becoming a gay icon and activist?
Salim “Slam” Gauwloos was born in Borgerhout, Belgium in 1968 to a Belgian mother and Moroccan father. “At age five I knew I was gay,” Slam chuckles. “I loved dressing up in my mother’s clothes and playing with Barbies. My family had no problem with it, but I was bullied a lot at school.”
Slam grew up taking gymnastics but later gravitated toward dance. “I wanted to do ballet because I loved music and expressing myself through movement.” At 13, Slam auditioned and was accepted to the Royal Ballet School of Flanders.
At 18, he received a scholarship to study at a prominent dance studio in New York City. “I had to pay my own way,” he recalls. “So I worked as a dishwasher the summer before I left Belgium.” At the studio, Slam essentially became a work-study student–working at the studio in exchange for free classes. “My English was not good, and I couldn’t work at the front desk,” he admits. “I cleaned a lot of toilets!”
During his time in New York City, Slam landed a few exciting jobs in music videos for Rick Astley and Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam and made it to the finals of “Star Search” with the dance group, Innaffekt. “But my goal was to dance for Alvin Ailey,” he remembers. “I dreamed he would see me dancing in class and ask me to join his company right there!” And in fact, Slam was accepted to Ailey II, the Dance Theater’s second company, but he turned it down for another exciting opportunity that came out of the blue…
“Back in my day, all the auditions were posted in Backstage newspaper. We couldn’t wait to get our hands on the paper every week!” Slam explains. “I saw the listing for the Madonna tour audition and a friend convinced me to go.” Hundreds and hundreds of men lined up around the block to be seen by Madonna–who was in the audition room from day one. “Some guys brought her flowers and were kissing up to her,” Slam remembers. “I wasn’t about that, and I think she liked that about me.” After a week of callbacks for choreographer, Vincent Patterson, Slam received a personal phone call from Madonna asking him to join her tour. He was one of only seven back-up dancers on the Blond Ambition tour, and rehearsals started just a few weeks after he got the call.
While rehearsing for the tour in Los Angeles, the cast filmed the iconic “Vogue” music video, directed by David Fincher. Right from the start, Slam (who is heavily featured in the video) and the rest of the troupe were thrust into the spotlight.
The Blond Ambition tour traveled across the United States, Europe, and Asia and is now regarded by Rolling Stone as the best tour of the 1990s. “Tour was incredible and, at first, they had the idea to film the concert live,” explains Slam. But producers realized that the real entertainment was behind-the-scenes, and the project soon evolved into a reality show-like documentary. “Nothing was directed or staged,” notes Slam. “Everything was raw and real. We were just being ourselves!” A defining moment in the documentary is a “truth or dare” kiss between Gabriel and Slam. “It was completely innocent and organic,” he says. “But that made it even more powerful and real. It was the first unscripted gay kiss on the big screen. I still get emails from people all over the world thanking me for making them feel normal. That moment had an impact greater than we could have ever imagined.”
Being part of Madonna’s world was surreal…fame, fortune, and the glamorous life came hand-in-hand for all the dancers. “Madonna was the superstar and people listened to what she had to say,” explains Slam. “But now fans also knew us! They would wave signs and cheer for us as individuals because, thanks to the documentary, we had something to say, too.”
But living the high life on tour was not all fun and games. Back at age 18–before moving to New York City–Slam was diagnosed with HIV. “It was from my first sexual experience. The doctor told me–in front of my mother–that I only had five years to live.” The AIDS epidemic grew quickly, but information and conversation about the disease were kept tightly under wraps. “I was so scared,” says Slam, fighting back tears. “People would not drink from the same glass, shake hands, or even share a bathroom for fear of getting infected. I was in denial. Dancing kept me going, but I never told anyone. In fact, three of us dancers on tour had HIV but we never knew until years later because we were not ready to talk about it.”
The “Truth or Dare” documentary took the world by storm, and it also affected each dancer’s life tremendously. “Gabriel didn’t want our kiss to be in the final cut,” explains Slam. “Madonna said he shouldn’t feel ashamed of being himself, but it wasn’t that. He just wasn’t ready to take that on so publicly.”
The transition from world tour to real world was not easy. After the tour, Slam went on to do a lot of modeling work for labels like Versace and Jean Paul Gautier. “But now I was out-of-the-closet, and that made it more difficult to land bigger campaigns at the time.” Finding other work was hard and Slam rapidly burned through his savings from tour. “I was illegal in this country starting in 1993 and couldn’t get a green card because, having HIV, I was considered a ‘public charge,’” he explains. Slam became jobless and homeless–staying on friends’ couches when he could. In 1997, Slam caught pneumonia but was too scared to go to the hospital for fear that he would get deported. “I had a high fever–which is a very bad symptom if you have HIV. I collapsed and was finally taken to the hospital,” remembers Slam. “Because I had HIV, the doctors wore white hazmat suits and masks. It was a terrifying experience but also oddly spiritual…Being near death opens up a whole different perspective on my life and priorities. Thankfully, I was able to get the medication I needed thanks to ADAP (AIDS Drug Assistance Program for the uninsured).”
“My life took a turn after that,” Slam explains with a soft smile. “I continued teaching at Broadway Dance Center (my first class there was in 1989) and I actually met the love of my life at BDC!” Facundo Gabba, Slam’s partner, helped him accumulate all his credits as a dancer and to find a lawyer to help apply for a green card. “My lawyer told me that they turned down 99% of immigrants with HIV,” notes Slam. “But in my last interview, the agent turned out to be a huge fan of Madonna! It was fate! And I finally got my green card.” In addition to teaching at BDC, Slam went on to work with artists including Aretha Franklin, Britney Spears, Taylor Dayne, Courtney Love, Robin S., Babyface, and Donna Summer and to perform on Broadway in Elton John and Tim Rice’s AIDA.
Now healthy and happily married, Slam is a sought-after teacher and choreographer around the world. “I love teaching,” Slam expresses. “I used to want to be famous. But I’ve come to realize that being a teacher is the true influencer.” Slam’s biggest piece of advice for young people today? “First of all, get rid of your TV! Always follow your heart…Be careful who you follow because 20 later you might realize you’ve been following the wrong person. Listen to your heart and your angels–they talk to you.”
It’s crazy to think back to Madonna’s ground-breaking “Vogue” music video (starring Slam) and to now see the dance style on the schedule here at Broadway Dance Center. “So much of gay culture has become mainstream–how people talk, dance, and dress,” notes Slam. “But people today don’t always recognize the history of our fight. Don’t be reckless and take it for granted.
It’s certainly still hard today and the fight is far from over, but let’s also be proud of how far we’ve come.”
By Mary Callahan