Willi Ninja was a legendary dancer, choreographer, and artist who pioneered the dance style of voguing and influenced the fashion and entertainment industries. He was also a prominent figure in the LGBTQ+ community and the ballroom culture of New York City. Sadly, he passed away on September 2, 2006, at the age of 45, due to AIDS-related illnesses. In this article, we will explore his life, achievements, and impact on the world.
Early Life and Influences
Willi Ninja was born William Roscoe Leake on April 12, 1961, in New Hyde Park, New York. He was of mixed racial ancestry, claiming to have Irish, Cherokee, and Asian ancestors. He grew up in Flushing, Queens, where he developed a passion for dancing at an early age. He was a self-taught dancer who learned from watching television, movies, and magazines. He was especially inspired by Fred Astaire, Michael Jackson, Olympic gymnasts, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Asian culture.
Rise to Fame and Voguing
Willi Ninja moved to Greenwich Village in the late 1970s and became involved in the ball scene, a subculture of LGBTQ+ people who competed in elaborate costume and performance events. He founded the House of Ninja, a group of dancers who became his extended family and followed his guidance as their “Mother”. He taught them the art of voguing, a dance style that originated in Harlem’s ballrooms and consisted of striking poses and movements that mimicked models and celebrities.
Willi Ninja refined voguing with his fluid and precise technique, fierce attitude, and theatrical flair. He became known as the “Godfather of Vogue” and won many trophies and titles at the balls. He also gained wider recognition when he appeared in the documentary film “Paris Is Burning” (1990), which chronicled the lives and struggles of the ball participants. The film also caught the attention of Madonna, who was inspired by Willi Ninja and voguing to create her hit song and video “Vogue” (1990).
Career and Achievements
Willi Ninja used his fame and talent to pursue a career in the mainstream entertainment and fashion industries. He worked as a dancer, choreographer, model, and instructor for various artists, designers, and shows. Some of his notable collaborations include:
- Dancing in music videos for Malcolm McLaren (“Deep in Vogue”, 1989), Masters at Work featuring India (“I Can’t Get No Sleep”, 1993), and Janet Jackson (“Alright”, 1990).
- Releasing his own single “Hot” (1994), produced by Masters at Work.
- Modeling for Jean-Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, Comme des Garçons, and others.
- Performing with dance companies under Karole Armitage and Bill T. Jones.
- Teaching voguing and runway walking to celebrities such as Paris Hilton, Naomi Campbell, Queen Latifah, and others.
- Opening his own modeling agency, Elements of Ninja, in 2004.
- Appearing on television shows such as Jimmy Kimmel Live!, The Ricki Lake Show, The Joan Rivers Show, and others.
- Featuring in another documentary film about voguing, “How Do I Look” (2006), directed by Wolfgang Busch.
Death and Legacy
Willi Ninja was diagnosed with AIDS in the early 1990s but kept his condition private until shortly before his death. He died on September 2, 2006, at New York Hospital Medical Center of Queens. He was surrounded by his friends and family from the House of Ninja. His death was mourned by many people who admired him for his artistry, charisma, courage, and kindness.
Willi Ninja left a lasting legacy on the world of dance, fashion, and culture. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in voguing and ballroom history. He is also celebrated as a pioneer and icon of the LGBTQ+ community who challenged stereotypes and promoted self-expression. His impact can be seen in the continued popularity of voguing and ballroom culture around the world.