I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Mine was the third black family to move into our neighbourhood. One moment I’ll always remember – my brother Tony and I were playing on my block. This white woman yelled at us, “You, [N-word], get out of my yard.” We went back and told my mom.
I always thought of my mom as Whitney Houston. On the exterior, she’s super gorgeous, but she has this absolute ghetto side to her. She was ready to go out that night but she stopped what she was doing, put her hair up, put vaseline on her face. She walked down the street and went off on that woman.
My dance career truly has been a divine orchestration. It started as a fixit for a part of my life that wasn’t working. My dad had family in Florida. I started my first year at a high school in Florida in 1978, when I was 14, but within a quarter of that year, I hated it. I called my parents and they immediately flew me home.
My mom ran into my eighth-grade teacher at the grocery store, who said, “Let me talk to some colleagues.” The one who opened the door happened to be a dance instructor at a magnet school. Magnet schools in America have to pull in students from all over the city, selected through academic standing or for having proved themselves in the higher arts field.
That teacher said she would work with me over the summer and teach me the audition piece. When the audition came, in the fall, I had to pretend I was meeting her and doing the choreography for the first time. I had to do it well enough to pull it off. Puff the magic dragon. It worked.
In January of 1990, I’d already been accepted to do a tour with Whitney Houston but Whitney didn’t know when she wanted to go out on the road, so we were on hold.
In the interim, I found out that Madonna was having an audition. I went, I did my thing and she posed the opportunity. I had to decide which one I would do. People were like, “Of course you would say Madonna.” But no, I was a young black boy from the South Side of Chicago, the queen for me was the chocolate Whitney. But I sat with it and the spirit told me to say no to Whitney and yes to Madonna.
The Blond Ambition tour was amazing because of the freedom we were encouraged to ignite as artists. Madonna is so comfortable with her own power that she generously shares the stage with other artists.
This was 1990 – record labels had a lot of money so we flew in private jets the whole time, we had individual suites, we had private chefs. If there’s a tour to do and a way to do it, I was blessed with the true rock-star version.
I went into the tour dealing with a slight injury and the doctor decided to run some tests; we never talked about running tests for HIV. He called me in and said what he said [that Wilborn was HIV positive].
All I could think at the time was that they would release it to the tour manager and I would be sent home. I said emphatically to the doctor that he would tell them nothing. Japan was the early part of the tour and I was walking on eggshells from that point on.
I decided to be open about being HIV positive when I published my first book, Front & Center: How I Learned to Live There, in 2007; it was realising that I have been capable of so many things but there’s a huge elephant in the room.
If I release that book, and it all shakes down, and I don’t get hired again, at least I get to look at myself in the mirror and know I’ve been honest with myself and with the world. I started writing the book in 2001.
This was when my relationship with my dad was still kind of crazy. He lives in Georgia and I was like, “I should visit him.” During that visit, it came up that I had been sexually abused.
When I was eight, my brother Tony and I would go to Florida to study karate every summer and my karate instructor was the perpetrator. My dad was bringing up his name because he was revered in my family and had funded my aunt’s funeral.
I was cringing on the inside because I’d never told my family or anybody else. I thought, “I cannot let this conversation go on any longer.” So in the parking lot, I told my dad.
I ended up getting private investigators involved – we did a whole entrapment meeting. I was not in it to ruin people’s lives, I was there to make sure what happened to me wouldn’t happen to anybody else.
I wanted to see him face to face, so I would know if he was being authentic with his regrets. We met at his church – he had become a pastor. He was clearly mournful, crying almost the whole time. His wife was sitting like a first lady, dignified and pulled together.
What ended up happening was, the spirit took over. I, as the victim, said, “Why don’t I do a prayer of new beginnings for all of us? Let’s take hands.”
What I learned at the end of that meeting was that the circumstances I thought had ruined my life caused me to embrace unconditional love in a way that I never saw coming. If that ain’t God, I don’t know what to say it is.
In 2011, I dropped my first life-coaching curriculum. I love my coaching work; it’s a powerful balance for my lifestyle. My entertainment life is obsessively about me and my coaching work is where I get to show up as a blank canvas and serve others.
Danceformation (a teaching system inspired by Front & Center) is a combination of workbook exercises and dance-based exercises. We created this structure so three of the main four movements are improv, so any person can begin to move in a way that’s comfortable for them. Then I, with guiding instructions, get them to unfold and see a bigger version of themselves.
Carlton Wilborn was in Hong Kong for a screening of the documentary Strike a Pose, which profiles the dancers who performed on Madonna’s Blond Ambition tour, at the Jumping Frames International Dance Video Festival.