‘Madonna put our talent out there’: dancing on the Blond Ambition tour

Salim Gauwloos looks back at his time on the 1990 tour

‘Hey, Salim, this is Madonna, do you want to go on tour with me?” I couldn’t believe it; I almost hadn’t gone to the dance auditions. I said I’d love to, but that I didn’t have the right work papers. “I’ll take care of that,” she said. Two weeks later, I was rehearsing Blond Ambition in LA.

I grew up in Antwerp and trained as a classical dancer. In 1987, aged 18, I came to New York on a scholarship. It was like walking into Fame. The style of dance, the city, the people: everything was exciting, liberating. When I saw an ad that said, “Open Audition for FIERCE Male Dancers… Wimps and Wanna-Bes need not apply!” everyone told me to go.

Madonna and I really connected on stage. As a dancer, you don’t get much recognition, but she put our talent out there. There were seven dancers, all in this picture (along with backing singer Donna De Lory). We had our own fans and would see signs in the audience with our names. I loved it. I wanted to be a star.

The documentary In Bed With Madonna was made on that tour. In it, I kiss Gabriel, one of the other dancers, as a dare. It was a massive deal at the time, but to me it was only important because I’m shy and I had a crush on him. I must have received 2,000 messages from people around the world telling me how their lives changed by seeing a gay kiss on the big screen.

As far as I remember, this was taken in Japan by Herb Ritts. It doesn’t tell the full story, though: from the outside, everything looks perfect – I was tanned, my body was good – but on the inside, I was petrified. I had been diagnosed with HIV in 1987 and kept it hidden. Escaping on tour was the perfect way not to deal with it. Madonna was so vocal about HIV and Aids. Every time she mentioned it, I crumbled. When people talked about who had died, I wondered, “Am I next?” But when I was dancing, I didn’t think about it. After performing, I would party. I could have had anybody in the world, but I wasn’t sexually active.

I’m 48 now and this image reminds me of great times. The tour lasted 10 months – I was young and ignorant and never thought it would end. It was the first and last time I worked with Madonna. I did some modelling afterwards, but when my visa expired, I didn’t see the point of working, because I thought I was going to die. For six years, I gave up on life. I didn’t have any money or a place to live. I didn’t get medical treatment because I was scared they would call immigration.

My life turned around in 1997 when I collapsed, was admitted to hospital and got help. A few years later, I met a beautiful guy and fell in love. He helped me get my working papers back and now we’re married. We live in New York and my HIV is under control.

I last saw Madonna a few months ago, at a private showing of In Bed With Madonna (known in the US as Truth Or Dare). She walked in unexpectedly and everyone gasped. We never got to say hi. To this day, I’m hired as a choreographer because I worked with her. That tour changed everything for me.

Strike a Pose, a documentary about Madonna’s Blond Ambition dancers, is now available on Netflix, and on LogoTV in the US.

Are you in a notable photograph? Email thatsme@theguardian.com


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