Willi Ninja: The Godfather of Voguing

by:   |   Jul 14 2014


Whenever I hear someone suggest that Madonna was the creator of the dance style known as voguing, I have to hold my hand back, to keep from slapping them. Yes, her single catapulted the dance style into the mainstream and made it accessible to pop culture, but she was certainly *not* the mother of the art form. And though Willi Ninja didn’t create it, he was one of the major players who worked on refining it and taking it to the next level; the way this man moved his body was nothing short of mesmerizing. Voguing originated in the Harlem ballrooms in the 1960s, created mostly by African American and Latino dancers. Originally called “presentation,” voguing got its name from the models’ angular poses in Vogue mag fashion spreads. It became an integral part of the underground club scene in the mid to late ’80s, and continued to evolve into the ’90s and beyond.


Willi Ninja

Willi Ninja was the “mother” of the House of Ninja and honed his craft in Washington Square Park, the Christopher Street pier, and underground clubs, teaching his protégés the art of voguing, and walking the balls. He also appeared in what is *obviously* the best documentary of all time, Paris is Burning. In fact, he was one of few performers in the doc who went on to attain mainstream success in the world of dance and modeling—he was featured in music videos like Malcolm McLaren’s “Deep in Vogue” and  “I Can’t Get No Sleep” by Masters at Work, and did runway modeling for Gaultier. Not bad for a self-described “butch queen” who grew up (where else?) in Flushing, Queens.


One of my 2014 goals is to take a voguing class. (I have my priorities straight, mmmkay?) And though I’m not hitting the clubs every night, when I’m out on the dance floor, I try to channel Willi’s spirit to help me bust out some very rudimentary voguing moves. Especially helpful is the part in Paris is Burning where Willi explains his “putting on make-up with a compact” technique. (Check it below @1:17).


Willi passed away in 2006, dude to AIDS-related heart-failure, at the scarily young age of 45. It’s tragic that he passed away so young, but damn, what a badass legacy to leave behind. A true cultural groundbreaker, he paved the way for a cultural movement that lives on.


So fierce.

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