WILLI NINJA, dancer and choreographer died of AIDS-related causes in New York City (b. 1961) Gay African-American dancer and choreographer best known for his appearance in the documentary film Paris is Burning. An androgynous, self-described ”butch queen,” Willi Ninja taught vogueing throughout Europe and Japan, modeled in runway shows for the fashion designers Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler and danced in music videos.
Ninja for years was a fixture of ball culture at Harlem’s drag balls who took inspiration from sources as far-flung as Fred Astaire and the world of haute couture to develop a unique style of dance and movement. He caught the attention of Paris is Burning director Jennie Livingston, who featured Ninja prominently in the film. The film, a critical and box office success, served as a springboard for Ninja. He parlayed his appearance into performances with a number of dance troupes and choreography gigs. His style served as an inspiration to Madonna, who immortalized it in her 1990 hit song and music video “Vogue.”
Born William Roscoe Leake in Queens, New York, Willi was a self-taught dancer and was perfecting his vogueing style by his twenties. It was from fellow voguers in Washington Square Park that Jennie Livingston first heard his name. While he didn’t create the form, he worked at refining it with clean, sharp movements to “an amazing level”. His influences included Fred Astaire, Olympic gymnasts, and Asian culture.
He participated in Harlem’s drag balls with “children” from his House of Ninja. Like other ball “houses”, HoN was sort of a combination of extended social family and dance troupe with Ninja as its Mother.
Willi was a featured dancer in many music videos including Malcolm McLaren’s “Deep In Vogue” and “I Can’t Get No Sleep” by Masters At Work featuring India. In 1994, he released his single “Hot” (another Masters At Work production) on Nervous Records. Willi’s later career included runway modeling for Jean-Paul Gaultier, performing with dance companies under Karole Armitage, providing instruction to Paris Hilton on perfecting her walk. He opened a modeling agency, Elements of Ninja, in 2004, and made appearances on America’s Next Top Model.