Willi Ninja, 45; Self-Taught Dancer Known for the Art of ‘Voguing’

From the Associated Press

Dancer Willi Ninja, a star of the documentary “Paris Is Burning” who was considered the godfather of the dance art form “voguing” and inspired Madonna’s “Vogue” music video, has died, friends and relatives said.

He was 45.

Ninja died Saturday of AIDS-related illnesses at New York Hospital Medical Center of Queens, they said.

Madonna, speaking through a spokeswoman this week, said she was sorry to hear of Ninja’s death.


“He was a great cultural influence to me and hundreds of thousands of other people,” she said.

Voguing, which dates to gay Harlem ballrooms in the first half of the 20th century, consists of a combination of model-like poses and creative arm, leg and body movements.

Ninja, who was inspired by Fred Astaire, “Great Performances” on PBS, Asian culture and Olympic gymnasts, was a self-taught performer who stitched together a patchwork of a career that covered the worlds of dance, fashion and music.

He performed with dance companies, worked under renowned choreographers and instructed models and socialites how to walk and pose for the paparazzi.


But Ninja was probably best known for the magic that he worked on the ballroom floor and his appearance in the 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning.”

The documentary chronicles the elaborate ball competitions in which participants walk in various categories or themes and are judged on the accuracy of their drag impersonations.

“Paris Is Burning” director Jennie Livingston said Ninja, a “supremely gifted dancer” who was extremely focused and dedicated to his craft, was “one of the main reasons” she made the film.

“Whenever you talk about vogue or voguing, Willi’s name is there,” Livingston said. “Willi refined voguing. He really brought it to an amazing level.”


Ninja, whose real name was William Leake, was born April 12, 1961, in New York and grew up in Queens.

He graduated from Bayside High School and studied for a year at Queens College, according to a copy of the program for his funeral, which was scheduled for Friday in Queens.

He is survived by his mother, Esther Leake of Queens.