Willi Ninja

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Willi Ninja

Violet Areola, Editor-in-Chief

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Willi Ninja was born on April 12, 1961 and was an American dancer and choreographer best known for his appearance in the documentary film Paris is Burning.  He was born to a Black mother, and was of mixed racial heritage, claiming to have Irish, Cherokee, and Asian ancestry in his family.  Ninja was also gay and known as the godfather of voguing, 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, which was a critical and box office success, and served as a springboard for Ninja.

He parlayed his appearance into performances with a number of dance troupes and choreography gigs. The film also documents the origins of “voguing”, a dance style in which competing ball-walkers freeze and “pose” in glamorous positions (as if being photographed for the cover of Vogue magazine). In 1989, Ninja starred in the music video for Malcolm McLaren’s song “Deep in Vogue”, which sampled the then-unfinished movie and brought Ninja’s style to the mainstream. One year after this, Madonna released her number one song “Vogue”, bringing further attention to the dancing style.

Ninja died of AIDS-related heart failure in New York City on September 2, 2006 at age 45.  After his death, he has continued to inspire many artists and music DJs.  Ninja is a central figure in scholarship in LGBTQ studies, gender studies, and performance studies for his nonconforming and transgressive gender expression as an artist.

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