Willi Ninja, a dancer whose mastery in the gender-bending art of “voguing” influenced Madonna and was memorialized in the documentary film “Paris Is Burning,” died Tuesday, according to friends and relatives.
Ninja was a self-taught performer who pieced together a patchwork of a career that included dance, fashion, and music. She was inspired by Fred Astaire, “Great Performances” on PBS, Asian culture, and Olympic gymnasts.
Was Willi Ninja Gay?
Willi discloses in an interview with Joan Rivers that he never disclosed his sexual orientation to his mother; rather, she confronted him with the statement, “Mothers always know. As her son, she assured him that she would always cherish him.
Willi’s presumed acceptance stands in stark contrast to the African American and Latino homosexual and transgender children he later mentored. Willi established the Video Pretenders in the early 1980s as a dance ensemble named after the Olympic gymnast and martial artist Fred Astaire.
In nightclubs, they would imitate the dance moves depicted in music videos. They soon realized that choreography was necessary.
Who Was Willi Ninja?
Willi Ninja was an American dancer and choreographer best remembered for his performance in the documentary film Paris is Burning. He was born on April 12, 1961. He was born to a Black mother and had a mixed racial background, claiming Irish, Cherokee, and Asian ancestors.
Ninja, also gay and recognized as the godfather of voguing, was a staple of Harlem’s drag events who drew influence from sources as diverse as Fred Astaire and the world of haute couture to produce a unique form of dance and movement. He piqued the interest of Paris is Burning director Jennie Livingston, who prominently featured Ninja in the film, which was a critical and box office triumph and acted as a springboard for Ninja.
A Self-Made Star Ninja Turned Vogueing Into An Art Form
Willi Ninja, known as the Grandfather of Vogue, a dance genre he helped transition from the 1980s New York club scene to the concert stage, died on Saturday in Queens. He was 45.
According to Archie Burnett, a close friend, the cause was AIDS-related cardiac failure. “Paris Is Burning,” the award-winning 1990 documentary about New York’s drag vogue-ball scene, introduced the public to vogueing, with its angular body movements, exaggerated model poses, and intricate mimelike choreography, as well as the colorful characters who populated Willi Ninja’s world.
Willi Ninja later appeared in works by postmodern choreographers such as Doug Elkins, David Neuman, and Karole Armitage.
Ninja’s First Steps Into the World of Dance
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He attended Harlem drag balls with ‘Children’ from his House of Ninja. HoN, like other ball houses, was a combination of an extended social family and dancing group, with Ninja as its Mother. He taught his youngsters late into the night on the old Christopher Street pier and in the underground clubs.
Ninja also appeared in two Janet Jackson videos from her album Rhythm Nation 1814, one of which is “Alright,” whose remix included late rap star Heavy D and cameo appearances by Cab Calloway, Cyd Charisse, and The Nicholas Brothers. He also appeared in “Escapade.”
Ninja worked tirelessly to care for his mother, Esther Leake, who had Parkinson’s disease and required a wheelchair. Her travels to the ballet and the Apollo with Ninja served as inspiration for his later dance endeavors.
Ninja appeared in a few films and television shows. On August 8, 1991, he appeared on The Joan Rivers Show with members of his Paris Is Burning group, including Dorian Corey and Pepper LaBeija. Jennie Livingston also appeared in the film.
The group discussed the documentary and urged audience members to “walk” as if they were at a Drag Ball. Ninja appeared as a dancer in Marlon Riggs’ 9-minute short Anthem the same year.
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