Carlton Wilborn

With determination, Carlton Wilborn has paved his rocky road smooth. From his long career, Carlton occupies the first twelve and half pages of a Google search. The list includes video, interview, and photo links that reveal an innermost portrait of a man with physical and emotional struggles turned into passionate living. This tall, strikingly elegant and vital man of dance is more than his ballet lines or contemporary moves.

We had lunch at Le Pain Quotidien in Larchmont to talk over Carlton’s resume. A lead dancer for Hubbard Street, Ballet Met, and Madonna’s Blonde Ambition world tour and documentary, Strike a Pose documentary, The Girlie Show tour, lead actor in Dance, a film directed by Robin Murray starring Johan Renvall (ABT) and Ellen Troy (Twyla Tharp) was the beginning. Carlton is a published writer; Front & Center: How I Learned to Live There and I Am Empowered: Igniting Freedom, Courage and Healing; he’s also a life coach and motivational speaker with a successful movement curriculum for wellness, Danceformation. From the view of his personal precipice, he acknowledged, “Now I’m able to see the divine orchestration of my life.

photo: courtesy of Carlton Wilborn
photo: courtesy of Carlton Wilborn

Carlton began dancing and instructing others in dance before ever taking a fundamental lesson himself. His oldest brother “got a gig teaching kiddie disco lessons every Saturday afternoon at a nightclub downtown called Dingbats. We did this for bar mitzvahs.” They instructed the hustle, bus-stop, and in between they performed two numbers. “I’d never studied dance. I don’t know where my brother even got the idea…I learned to perform before I trained.” But no doubt, a can-do and will-do attitude checked in and established itself in moving him forward through three decades of work.

In the beginning, two incidents positioned him to train and consider a life in dance. First, his mother wrote to his 8th-grade teacher, his first “angel,” Caroline Curry to help find him a good school. She in turn connected him to his second “angel,” Diane Brooks who ran the dance department at Whitney Young Magnet High School where he received his first steps in dance. Second, he watched a fourteen-year old prodigy, Shauna Goddard, perform with a professional company on television and later on stage with Hubbard Street Dance Company of Chicago. In an instant, his life’s work was determined. He declared he would be a dancer, dance with Hubbard Street Dance Company, and “I want to work with that girl.

During this time, he was sexually abused from the ages of eight to thirteen and struggling with his sexual orientation. In this period of development, Carlton found strength in defining himself through dance. In his transition into the professional arena studying under Lou Conte at Lou’s studio in Chicago, Carlton embraced self-discipline and rugged training which offered independence and acceptance.

Now I’m able to see the divine orchestration of my life.

The grooming as a dancer from Lou Conte - I know that so much of that way and that discipline and that acute focus…” Carlton side-tracked… “Lou was strong. Noble kind of dude. It was the 80’s where you got pushed in different ways than you get pushed now. And he was no joke to that…what Lou demanded [from me] as an ensemble and then how he dealt with me to groom me from ensemble to principal – which is a very different thing.

He met with his first dance agent Julie McDonald at the Hollywood and Highland office with resume, film, and tape in hand. He set a concrete plan and signed up for acting classes. Carlton was not an overnight success and celebrity from his tour with Madonna as some might think, but an established national entity in performance. He was asked to audition for Madonna. “I know that the way I showed up at the Madonna camp once I got there, and the way I was able to navigate her temperament and her way is because I was groomed by Lou Conte.

photo: courtesy of Carlton Wilborn
photo: courtesy of Carlton Wilborn
I’m powerful in my right, she’s powerful in her right.

In the early 1990’s, “When I got to Madonna, I was already fully-formed and acknowledged in the dance world as an artist. I had already done interviews, had my face on magazines through Hubbard and Ballet Met. Different than the other guys who were all eighteen and it was their first job.” The pieces fit easily for a healthy work expectation. “It was my conscious choice that I was going to work with her. That was the frame. I wasn’t working for her. We’re partners. I’m powerful in my right, she’s powerful in her right.

This fundamental proposition was a platform for success. “She got me. It’s ways you talk, ways you listen. It’s the energy in your eyes when someone is speaking. She got that I was grounded enough that she could trust me.

Work was jetting around the world with Madonna, but in his personally life, Carlton was “walking on eggshells.” He had been diagnosed HIV positive. In discussing why we are given our particular journeys, Carlton’s smile deepened. “Based on the space that we hold.” Spiritual awareness and the ability to confront his sexual abuser with forgiveness, and love, accepting his sexual orientation and being diagnosed HIV positive came to him when writing his book, Front & Center.

And currently, “One of the new spaces I’m working with is – what if nothing is broken – ever? What if literally, all of it, the problems and struggles, from the shit that broke you down to your knees, that had you sobbing – all of it – was divinely designed as training? So that when I look at my issues, it helps me to have a bigger sense…the Universe cared enough for me to pressure me and ride me through that war. And it was a war - when every billboard said ‘this’ about you and ‘those people’ you’re a group of, and this is your ‘mortality rate.’ And you still have to be Carlton is in Command, on the surface, while all this other stuff is trying to eat you. And I will say, it was a fascinating journey and I wouldn't take any of it back.

photo: courtesy of Carlton Wilborn
photo: courtesy of Carlton Wilborn

Here is an excellent place to give a nod to Carlton’s Danceformation curriculum. His three-step process: Move it Out – all the things that are the obstruction. Move it In – the new visions and intentions that you have for yourself. Move it Up – the things that are currently working for you, ramped to the next personal level. And because all of our journeys, “affords [us] the opportunity to hear inside somebody else’s conundrum. To be able to show up for it in the right way and serve it. The journey is a plethora, not just for yourself but because you need it - somewhere, at some point to be the baton passer. You can only do that where people can richly receive you, if they trust you’ve walked through some shit. Then it’s all for good.

When asked about his surplus of experience and life lessons, he didn’t miss a beat. “It’s linked to the area I thought was the flaw. It’s not just an intellectual concept – you’re inside that reality and catching up to your freedom.

But what do we hold on to in order to walk through our struggles to survive? “Trusting that the Universe cares about us.

About the author

Laura Fremont’s Dancing Ahead interviews dancers who have gone before, either leaping down a traditional path or twirling along a road less traveled. For more than thirty years, Laura’s dance work as a performer, choreographer, and educator has connected her to an industry of talented and passionate fellow professionals in film, television, and stage. These closely held associations offer rich insight to our newer generation of dancers, to help guide their success, give support, and offer confirmation for their dance journey.