Today’s video Doodle celebrates Willi Ninja, an iconic dancer and choreographer known as the “Godfather of Voguing.” An acclaimed performer, Willi paved a path 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 performers featured are current members of the House of Ninja (Archie Burnett Ninja, Javier Madrid Ninja, Kiki Ninja, and Akiko Tokuoka aka KiT Ninja) dancing in celebration of Willi’s legacy. On this day in 1990, the documentary Paris is Burning — which features Willi and the Iconic House of Ninja — was released in the US at the NewFest New York LGBT Film Festival.
Willi Ninja was born in 1961 and grew up 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 she couldn’t afford expensive dance lessons, it didn’t stop Willi from teaching himself the moves that would make him a star.
Willi went on to master the art of voguing, a dance style that blends fashion poses with intricate, mime and martial arts-like movements. The dance form emerged from the Harlem ballroom scene, which was a safe space founded by LGBTQ+ Black and Latino folks to celebrate self 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 who face rejection from biological relatives. Willi co-founded his very own community called the House of Ninja in 1982, and continued to provide support and guidance for his house members even after he became famous.
Inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphs and martial arts, Willi introduced new dance techniques that redefined voguing standards. Catapulted to stardom in the ’90s, Willi went on to perform in films, music videos, and luxury runway shows around the world. His moves inspired celebrities ranging from Madonna to Jean-Paul Gaultier.
Willi was prominently featured in the 1990 documentary, Paris Is Burning, where his unique dance style was showcased on the big screen. The film was a big success and exposed Willi’s work to a wider audience.
When Willi wasn’t dancing, he was a powerful advocate for his community. One of the first to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS prevention at drag balls, Willi played a pivotal role in helping to reduce stigma surrounding the disease.
Thank you Willi Ninja for your contributions to the world of dance and for how you brought visibility to Black and Latino LGBTQ+ identities all over the world. The House of Ninja carries on dancing in your name.
“Urban Cowboy” (2005)
Photographed: Willi Ninja wearing a vest made from flyers that had images of Octavia St. Laurent, Luna Khan, Jose Xtravaganza, Pepper Labeija, and himself. This photo was taken at a panel discussion about ballroom.
Courtesy of Luna Luis Ortiz
Photographed: Willi Ninja at The House of Khan Heritage Ball at NYU (February 2004)
Willi Ninja was being honored with an award from The House of Khan and New York University for his brilliance in all communities.
Courtesy of Luna Luis Ortiz
Photographed: Luna Khan, House of Khan, Willie Ninja, and Jose Xtravaganza in Chicago (2005)