Willi Ninja (1961-2006) was an African American dancer, choreographer, and icon in the Ballroom community who was famous for his innovative voguing, a dance used in runway competitions between Ballroom houses.
Ballroom and Voguing
Originating in the 1980s, voguing combines exaggerated model poses and intricate mime-like choreography with contortionist arm and leg positions.Voguing features marked awareness of the model for the camera – as such, the voguer aims for the best possible use of lighting and dramatic presentation. In order to dramatize a pose, the model/dancer uses angular movements. Voguing is performed in runway competitions sponsored by the Ballroom community, an interregional LGBTQ group with roots in Harlem’s early twentieth century drag ball extravaganzas during what was known as the “pansy craze.”
The drag balls of the first half of the twentieth century eventually transformed into Ballroom culture (also known as the Ball scene) in the latter decades of that same century. Drag balls that belonged to the underground LGBTQ movement in the United States – mainly in New York City and Washington DC – held competitions for trophies and prizes. Most people involved in Ball culture were affiliated with drag houses, groups composed primarily of Gay males and transpeople led by a house mother or house father. Drag houses provided poor Black and Hispanic LGBTQ folk with new ways of expressing realness: transformative and convincing performance of persona. From drag houses came Ballroom houses as some LGBTQ people explored different styles of dance and identity, then performed them in runway competitions.
Born on Long Island, New York, William Roscoe Leake grew up in Flushing, Queens. He began dancing publicly at the age of seven. After dropping out of high school, Leake went to beauty school. He moved to Greenwich Village in the late 1970s and joined the Gay male dance scene with friends who would dance early forms of voguing on the Christopher Street Pier and Washington Square. In an interview with Tricia Rose in Microphone Fiends, Ninja described his debut in the club scene:
I started hanging out at the [Greenwich] Village — I always snuck out to the Village even when I was in high school. While I was in beauty school I began going to parties at after-hour clubs and I started meeting the kids from the house scene, and hanging out with them and developing a reputation. I danced in this club called Crisco’s. It was an after-hours gay club and the DJ’s booth was a huge Crisco’s oil can. It was called Crisco’s disco. That club was a scandal… Around this time my best friends, Archie Burnett and Tyrone Proctor, and some others and I started a group. We called ourselves the Video Pretenders, because we used to go to any club that had video capabilities: we would do the exact dance routine in the videos that were out at the time… So it was fun for a while, then we said, “Well why do we have to copy everybody else’s routine? Let’s come up with our own choreography.”
By the early 1980s, Leake was voguing in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village and at Harlem’s famous drag balls. His clean, sharp style with swiftly moving arms and hands included clicking, which involves dislocating the arms at the shoulder. He was inspired by Fred Astaire, Great Performances on PBS, Olympic gymnasts, and particularly the martial arts (hence the name “Ninja”). As Willi Ninja, he started the House of Ninja, one of the best-known Ballroom houses in New York City, and was its mother.
In late 1980′s, music producer Malcolm McLaren heard about Ninja and voguing. Impressed by Ninja’s character and style, McLaren took a group of dancers led by Ninja to European fashion houses. According to McLaren, Ninja did not just wear clothes, he acted them. Ninja modeled in runway shows for Chanel, Jean Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, Karl Lagerfeld and others. He also trained models like Naomi Campbell and Iman, and taught voguing throughout Europe and Japan. As a dancer, he performed in music videos and in works by postmodern choreographers like Doug Elkins, David Neuman and Karole Armitage. He also contributed to several albums: Deep in Vogue (1989), Hot (1994), and Feel It…… Dance (1999).
Legend and Icon
Willi Ninja came to be known as the Grandfather of Vogue. With Ninja’s notoriety, voguing gained a level of visibility, especially after pop singer Madonna saw vogue dancers at a McLaren event in Los Angeles. She co-wrote her song “Vogue” and recruited Jose and Luis Xtravaganza as her dancers. The song became a worldwide hit, and Ninja’s dance moves were introduced to global mainstream culture.
The Ball documentary Paris Is Burning by Jennie Livingston in 1990 made Ninja a legend outside of the Ballroom scene. The film also became part of the syllabi in many university classes in various disciplines, such as Gender Studies, Anthropology, Dance, and Folklore. Paris Is Burning introduced Ninja and others (such as Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, and Anji Xtravaganza) to millions of people all around the world. Ninja also appeared in Sally Sommer’s Check Your Body at the Door (1994) and Wolfgang Busch’s How Do I Look (2006).
In 2004, Ninja opened a modeling agency, EON (Elements of Ninja). He died of AIDS-related heart failure at New York Hospital Medical Center of Queens in September 2006, at the age of 45. Ballroom icon Kevin Omni Burrus called Willi Ninja “a strong spiritual and inspirational source of strength to the Ball Community.”
Ninja on Dance
In the Microphone Fiends interview with Rose, Ninja described how competition and music inspire him on the dance floor:
When I see somebody who’s a really good dancer sometimes I’ll sit there with a little smirk on my face wondering if I should get up and compete, to see how good they really are. But the majority of the time I won’t do it, because I hate when people do that to me, especially when I’m having a good time on the dance floor. But, if they come for me and I’m in that mood and they started first, that’s when I’ll answer it. They started it, so let’s see if they can finish it. If I’m in a competitive mood, I have to let the music take me over… How the DJ clips the music—certain combinations – can totally inspire you. Sometimes people think I’m on major drugs because when a song clicks, I am gone. I mean I don’t see, hear, smell, or taste no one. I get such a high from dancing. If both my legs break and they can’t heal? You better kill me.
Monaghan, Terry. “Willi Ninja: Dance Master Who Took Voguing from the Gay Club Scene on the Catwalk.” The Guardian, September 13, 2006.
Ogunnaike, Lola. “Willi Ninja, 45, Self-Created Star Who Made Vogueing Into Art, Dies.” The New York Times, September 6, 2006.
Rose, Tricia. “Nobody Wants a Part-Time Mother: An Interview with Willi Ninja.” Microphone Fiends: Youth Music and Youth Culture, Andrew Ross and Tricia Rose, eds. New York: Routledge, 1994.