An accomplished performer, Willi blazed a trail for Black LGBTQ+ representation and acceptance in the 1980s and 90s
Today’s Doodle video celebrates Willi Ninja, an iconic dancer and choreographer known as the “Godfather of Voguing.” An accomplished performer, Willi blazed a trail for Black LGBTQ+ representation and acceptance in the 1980s and 90s.
The community he created, ‘The Iconic House of Ninja’, lives on to this day. The Doodle video was illustrated by Rob Gilliam and edited by Xander Opiyo, with original music by Vivacious. The featured performers are the current members of the House of Ninja (Archie Burnett Ninja, Javier Madrid Ninja, Kiki Ninja and Akiko Tokuoka aka KiT Ninja) dancing to celebrate Willi’s legacy. On this day in 1990, the documentary Paris Burning—which features Willi and the Iconic House of Ninja—had its US release at the NewFest New York LGBT Film Festival.
Willi Ninja was born in 1961 and raised in Flushing, Queens. He had a loving mother who supported his identity. She encouraged his interest in dance by taking him to ballet performances at the Apollo Theater. Although he couldn’t afford dance lessons, that didn’t stop Willie from teaching himself the moves that would make him a star.
Willi went on to master the art of voguing, a dance style that combines fashion poses with intricate movements, mimes and martial arts. The dance form emerged from the Harlem ballroom scene, which was a safe space established by LGBTQ+ Black and Latino people to celebrate expression and togetherness.
Most Black and Latino ballroom participants belong to groups known as houses, which offer an extended social family and safety net for those facing rejection by biological relatives. Willi co-founded his own community called House of Ninja in 1982 and continued to provide support and guidance to his house members even after becoming famous.
Inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphs and martial arts, Willi introduced new dance techniques that redefined voguing standards. In the 90s, Willi continued to act in films, music videos and lavish shows around the world. His moves have inspired celebrities from Madonna to Jean-Paul Gaultier.
Willi starred in the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, where his unique dance style was showcased on the big screen. The film was a great success and exposed Willi’s work to a wider audience.
When Willi wasn’t dancing, he was a strong advocate for his community. One of the first to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS prevention at drag balls, Willi has been instrumental in reducing the stigma surrounding the disease.
Thank you Willi Ninja for your contribution to the world of dance and how you have given visibility to Black and Latino LGBTQ+ identities around the world. The House of Ninja continues to dance to your name.
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