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Remembering Willi Ninja, icon of vogue’s long tradition

Willi Ninja, who rose to prominence in the 1980s as a master of voguing, died almost 10 years ago.
Willi Ninja, who rose to prominence in the 1980s as a master of voguing, died almost 10 years ago.(AP)

Sept. 2 marks a decade since the death of dancer, choreographer, and icon Willi Ninja. Born William Roscoe Leake, Ninja rose to prominence in the 1980s as a master of voguing. The dance style, a fixture of black and Latino gay communities in New York City, grew out of drag’s elaborately performed gender, while both expanding and refining its focus — voguing’s rapid-fire posing channeled archetypes, feminine and masculine, amplifying attitudes through the lens of fashion photography’s extravagant physical geometry. Competitive voguing became a staple of Harlem’s ballroom scene, with teams of dancers organized into houses, just as with couture. (The House of Ninja, founded and led by Willi, still endures.)

Ninja was one of voguing’s most charismatic and — although mostly self-taught — technically exacting practitioners. (His adopted name reflected his choreographic ideal: speed and precision to rival the martial arts.) He provided vocals and starred in the video for “Deep in Vogue,” the 1989 song by producer, designer, and impresario Malcolm McLaren that first brought voguing into wider recognition, and featured prominently in “Paris Is Burning,” Jennie Livingston’s influential 1990 documentary of the ballroom scene. After the popularity of Madonna’s “Vogue” and its accompanying video (in which Ninja had no involvement, though he would later work with the video’s choreographer, Karole Armitage), Ninja went on to a varied career of dancing, modeling, and coaching other dancers and models. He died, at the age of 46, from AIDS-related heart failure.

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In a way, the skill and verve Ninja exemplified brought voguing full circle. The form’s subversively hermeneutic claim to its fashion-based inspiration was reflected in the name, borrowed from fashion’s most elegant and eminent magazine. (“I mean,” Ninja noted, with exquisite shade, “you wouldn’t go to a Ball to do the ‘Mademoiselle.’ ”) But “Vogue” the publication, in its early days, had turned to dance for example and authority. The French edition, especially, which debuted in 1920, assiduously covered the era’s most trend-setting (and scandalous) troupe: Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the ballet of Nijinsky, of Stravinsky and Ravel, of Picasso and Matisse and Chanel.

Reshaping “the boundary between public art and private entertainment,” as scholar Mary E. Davis has put it, “Vogue” celebrated and critiqued the Ballets not just as theater, but as modernist stimulus for clothing and style. With voguing, the ballroom scene returned the favor, making fashion the spark for a fierce, fluid form of self-expression — one that Diaghilev surely would have cherished.

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Matthew Guerrieri


Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.