Grandfather of Vogue, Willi Ninja, Dies at 45

NinjaTributes poured out across the blogosphere over the weekend to Willi Ninja, a legendary figure in the New York dance scene who was instrumental in lifting the underground Black and Latino vogue balls into the public’s consciousness. Ninja starred in Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris is Burning, and Malcolm McLaren and Madonna later took Ninja’s moves to the mainstream.

Ninja told The Washington Post in 1991 that the vogueing phenomenon was as much an expression of sexuality as it was a dance form: “I’ve been voguing for 11 years, but I didn’t have an inkling of it until I started. It was very underground. You basically didn’t even see the dance in mainstream clubs, because once people figured out where it came from, then they automatically assumed that if you’re doing this dance, then you must be. And the majority of kids at that time didn’t want to come out. I was in the closet then, but I was like, ‘Hey, this is great, this is a new dance form.’ And once I had it down pat, I was doing it everywhere.”

Willi Ninja had been hospitalized since July for complications from AIDS. He died on Saturday at 45.

Willi Ninja, RIP [keith boykin]
Willi Ninja [payor]
RIP Willi Ninja [clay cane]
Killer Pose [the stranger blog]


  1. shirley says

    Willi was the first person I ever saw “voguing” — onstage at the Don’t Bungle The Jungle rainforest benefit at BAM in May 1989. I later saw him in Paris Is Burning & many years later, at a 10th anniversary screening, I had the pleasure of meeting him. He was charming, warm & delightful and always friendly when I bumped into him every time after we met.

    Willi – you will be missed.

  2. Brian says

    How very sad. It’s sobering to realize how many of the people who were featured in “Paris is Burning” are no longer with us.

  3. mikey d says

    Very sad. 45 is just too damn young. I was a kid when I became aware of voguing, and like most non-NYers of the time I only associated it with Madonna. When I became aware of its origins I was presently suprised and delighted. How wonderful is it that disenfranchised black and latino gay youth (of the 80’s no less) found a expression that would become a phenomenon. It’s brilliant and I admire Willi Ninja for being a part of it.

  4. Giovanni says

    adj 1: so celebrated as to having taken on the nature of a legend;
    “the legendary exploits of the artistic trailblazers”

    Divas To The Dance Floor, Please! Judging by the lack of responses to this post not many towleroad peeps were aware of the fierceness… pity.

    Not only was Ninja an INCREDIBLE talent he was also a long time advocate for the “children” (the queer/pier kids of color the um…”yuppies” on Christopher street are so afraid of) giving them not only a sense of pride by showcasing their unique talents but also a family/home (aka “house of”) that many of them could not find elsewhere.

    Let’s hope the media gives this queen his proper crown. Rock on Willie!

  5. xavier says

    I first heard of Vogueing because of Madonna, but after watching ‘Paris is Burning’ I was in awe of the fierce, defiant Voguers in the Balls and the niches they craved for themselves. It takes balls of steel to be out and proud (and not being afraid of ‘flaming’) in the gay community, but especially in the Black and Latino communities. It’s a total loss that this creative, talented dancer is no longer with us.

  6. says

    I was at Rambles @ The Park in Chelsea Sunday night and Kevin Aviance asked for a moment of silence for W. Ninja. As the crowd applauded, 3 guys next to me said to eachother rather loudly, “Who’s that?” while applauding.

    I think the nature of the vogue and ball scene is a little more underground, which would mean alot of us would have to take initiative to discover it. Not alot of people care to do that, or have anyone inciting them to. It’s sad, but that’s why we have a pop culture at all.

    I didn’t know of W.Ninja until I saw Paris Is Burning on Logo. In fact, while I knew of the ball scene, I knew nothing OF it until I saw that movie either.

    May he rest in peace.

  7. theone says

    I remeber asking for a picture of he and I and he threw shade and walked away laughing at me and my friend. buhhhh bye

  8. Denis says

    As one of the managers at the old Sound Factory, in the hey day of the Vogueing craze, I new Willie, and yes he could throw shade. In fact, we once had an evening of drama between us. But it was forgotten about a week later. It was his 15 minutes, which he milked, and he was the best. Rest in peace Mr Ninja