|Born||William Roscoe Leake
April 12, 1961
Middletown, New York, U.S.
|Died||September 2, 2006 (aged 45)
New York City, U.S.
Cause of death
|AIDS-related heart failure|
|Occupation||Dancer and choreographer|
Ninja, a gay man 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. 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." He also starred in the earlier music video for Malcolm McLaren's "Deep in Vogue".
Born William Roscoe Leake in Middletown, 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 a combination of extended social family and dance troupe, with Willi as its Mother. He taught his "children" late into the night on the old Christopher Street pier and at the underground clubs.
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, and providing instruction to Paris Hilton on perfecting her walk. He opened a modeling agency, Elements of Ninja, in 2004, and made an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. Willi was also prominently featured in the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning and the 2006 documentary release How Do I Look directed by Wolfgang Busch.
He was also well known for coining the position "The Ninja Deathstar."
Willi Ninja worked hard to care for his mother, Esther Leake, a wheelchair bound woman suffering from Parkinson's. Her trips with Willi to the ballet and the Apollo were inspiration for his later endeavors in dance.
- Willi Ninja, R.I.P. | keithboykin.com
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- "He was a great cultural influence to me and hundreds of thousands of other people"
- "Willi refined voguing. He really brought it to an amazing level."
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- NY Times obituary
- Ottawa Citizen obituary