Before voguing made it’s mainstream debut via Madonna in 1990 and the classic Jennie Livingston doc Paris is Burning in the same year, voguing was a dance pioneered by black drag queens in the 1960’s NYC Harlem ballroom era. The dance itself began as an admiration of the lifestyle of the rich and the famous, the fifth ave steppers and high fashion magazine models and their poses- hence the name. By the 80’s, as shown in Paris is Burning, the dance evolved into a form of shade and was used to distinguish who was legendary and who wasn’t. One such legend was Willi Ninja, the mother of the House of Ninja who not only mastered the dance form but aspired to take voguing from the ballroom to the real Paris and make the real Paris burn. And did he ever.
Born William Roscoe Leake on April 12, 1961, Willi became fascinated with dance from a young age through visits to the ballet and Motown shows at the Apollo as a kid with his mom, who nurtured his love of dance. By his early 20’s he was a fixture in ball culture and could often be found perfecting what became his craft in Washington Square in Greenwich Village. The House of Ninja, his brain child, was formidable. A make shift family of impoverished black/latino LGBT youth, House of Ninja boasted the best dancers. Willi’s interpretation and perfection of the dance separated him from the rest. Described as a safe form of throwing shade, he drew inspiration from not only from poses in Vogue magazine but also from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, gymnastics, Asian influences, marital arts and samurai warriors- hence the name Ninja.
Willi gained prominence after his Paris is Burning feature- where besides proving just why he was one of the best voguers out, he displayed a fierce sense of determination for his future and the future of vogue. His ambition was to be on to top of voguing when it hit mainstream. To be known worldwide either as choreographer, dancer or singer. He used the balls to perfect the dance and learn from legendary peers like Hector Xtravaganza and William Dupree. The fact that he actually achieved every one of these goals is inspirational in itself, a gay black man on a mission. His work ethic was ingrained in his house, to be a part of Ninja you needed to be in school, working or doing some form of outreach. He danced in music videos for Malcolm McLaren, Masters At Work and Janet Jackson among others. He even recorded a track in ’94- aptly entitled Hot.
In the beginning Willi taught models at the Fashion Institute of Technology (NYC) and regular NYC women how to walk a runway. Top models like Iman and Naomi Campbell early in their careers fell under his tutelage and much later, Paris Hilton. He toured the world promoting the art form and modelled runway shows by Jean-Paul Gaultier and Theirry Mugler, was featured by Bessie/New York Dance and Performance award winning choreographer Doug Elkins and performed alongside David Neumann and Karole Armitage. He produced ‘The House of Ninja’ for Delacotre Theatre‘s summer stage in Central Park and Théâtre de Suresnes Jean Vilar in Paris. In the midst of the AIDS crisis of the 80’s that saw many in the ball culture of the time affected claiming way too many exceptionally talented lives, Ninja advocated for HIV/AIDS prevention- something that wasn’t being done courtesy the stigma and fear of the disease, much like today.
In 2004 Willi established a model agency, EON- Elements of Ninja and is credited with reintroducing voguing to the world of fashion through his work with legendary designers Theirry Mugler and Jean-Paul Gaultier and through TV features on America’s Next Top Model circa 2007 and Jimmy Kimmel Live. In addition to Paris is Burning, Ninja was featured on the 2006 documentary How do I look and 2012’s Check your body at the door – a 35 year project dating back to 1980. On September 2, 2006 Ninja died at the age of 45 due to AIDS- related heart failure in Queens, NYC.
Willi remains synonymous with the art form and continues to be referenced in LGBTQ studies for his nonconformity and gender-bending expression as an artist. His house continued his legacy through the promotion of HIV/AIDS awareness in his name.