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Celebrating Drag: Part 2—Willi Ninja

By Elizabeth Gracen:

During my research about prominent historical figures from the LGBTQIA+ community for the Celebrating Drag series here on Flapper Press, I found myself slipping down various rabbit holes leading to fascinating stories about the brave men and women in the queer community whose groundbreaking efforts and courageous conviction to live authentically have continued to inspire the fight for human rights in an ever-hostile world.

Celebrating Pride Month 2023 is more important than ever. By highlighting the history of the LGBTQIA+ movement—from the Stonewall Riots to the current political climate that seeks to oppress the gay and trans community and suppress actual historical facts taught in classrooms all across the United States—we celebrate Pride to ensure that the truth is told and the events and the people who made queer history are honored.

In this second article in our series Celebrating Drag, we take a look back at an elegant original who brought his passion for dance and expression to the cultural forefront—Willi Ninja.

If you are of a certain age, you’ll remember the sensation of Madonna’s 1990 “Vogue” music video that looped around our brains during the heyday of MTV. Directed in gorgeous black and white glamour by David Fincher, it is Madonna at her most fierce and fabulous—but that’s not what catches your attention. It’s that hypnotic, synchronized choreography that frames a face and encourages us to “strike a pose.”

As a luminous gay icon, Madonna has always been groundbreaking and a true gay ally, once stating, “I wouldn't have a career if it weren't for the gay community." She didn’t invent “voguing,” but for most of us, she offered a gateway opportunity into the vibrant world of African-American and Latinx underground drag ball culture that has grown and flourished, influencing modern culture across many mediums from the 1980s to the present day, most notably in the successful, award-winning Ryan Murphy series Pose, starring Billy Porter and Michaela Jaé Rodriguez.

Willi Ninja, known as the “Grandfather of vogue,” was instrumental in perfecting the “vogue” dance form and spreading it around the world. Featured in the highly acclaimed documentary film Paris Is Burning, Ninja was successful in parlaying his onscreen magnetism and dance artistry into a career as a dancer and model, as well as “trainer” to high-fashion models the likes of Naomi Campbell, Iman, and Gisele Bündchen, as well as to celebrities such as Paris Hilton.

Born in Queens in 1961 as William Roscoe Leake, he was a self-taught dancer who started performing at an early age. Dropping out of college to attend beauty school in the 1970s, Ninja started performing with his dance group, the Video Pretenders, and soon began voguing in popular LGBTQ gatherings on the old Christopher Street Pier in NYC and eventually made his debut as a self-described "butch queen," voguing femme in Harlem’s famous drag balls.

Forming the House of Ninja in 1980, Ninja was “Mother” to his “children” who competed in drag contests around NYC, honing the unique dance expression of Black, queer bodies through the elements of hand performance, floor work, spins and dips, catwalk, and duck walk. Voguing is a physical expression unique to Black and Latinx bodies that exudes joy, freedom, and ultimate creativity with precision, attitude, and a new type of choreography first created by Paris Dupree on the dance club floor to “out dance” another queen when Dupree pulled out a Vogue magazine from her purse and started mimicking fashion model poses with jerky precision and full glam attitude.

Through Willi Ninja’s creativity and experimentation, voguing evolved even further, incorporating his interest in Egyptian hieroglyphs, contortion, and pantomime with acrobatic and marital arts influences. Ninja prided himself on his sharp dance skills and ability to “kill the competition” on the dance floor.

Ninja taught voguing around the world, working with Malcolm McLaren in music videos and on the high-fashion runways of Chanel, Jean Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, and Karl Lagerfeld, eventually opening his own modeling agency, EON (Elements of Ninja).

Throughout the 1980s, Ninja was instrumental in breaking through the stigma and anxiety surrounding the HIV/AIDS crisis by engaging the ballroom community to discuss the epidemic. His dedication to the community and to mentoring young dancers and models was of vital importance to him throughout his life. Diagnosed with HIV in 2003, he died of AIDS-related heart failure in 2006 at the age of 46, surrounded by his “children” of the House of Ninja.

The Iconic House of Ninja, now with over 200 members internationally, continues to perform in its mother’s name, educating and enduring against HIV/AIDS today.

To read more about the fabulous Willi Ninja and ballroom dance culture, check out these terrific websites:


Elizabeth Gracen is the owner of Flapper Press & Flapper Films.

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