Willi Ninja

Who is Willi Ninja?

Willi Ninja in the 1990 film "Paris is Burning" (Image Source: IMDb)

William Rosco Leake, better known as Willi Ninja, was an African American dancer and choreographer. Known as the godfather of voguing, he appeared in “Paris is Burning”, a documentary film about the New York ball scene and the lives of the Black and Latino LGBT+ members involved.

Early Life

Willi Ninja had an unorthodox queer experience for the time (Image Source:

Willi was born on April 12, 1961, in New Hyde Park, New York. Born to a single mother, Willi lived in Flushing, Queens where he first started teaching himself to dance. After high school, Willi went to beauty school and moved to Greenwich Village. It was in his early twenties that he started to perfect his style of voguing. While he did not invent Voguing, he perfected and pioneered the technique, drawing from Fred Astaire, Kemetic hieroglyphs, and martial arts to name a few.

Exploring Identity

While not much is known about his childhood, Willi talked in an interview with Joan Rivers about how he never really came out. His mother actually confronted him about it and said “A mother always knows” in reference to his homosexuality. She told him that he was her son and she would always love him. This was in stark contrast for most queer youth of the time. The support his mother gave is really what nurtured his vogue and led to him becoming the artist and house “mother” he was.

House of Ninja

Willi Ninja and friends voguing at "Mars", a nightclub in New York City, in 1988. Ninja founded the House of Ninja, a safe space for struggling queer youth (Image Source: Catherine McGann)

Willi was a prominent figure in the New York drag ball scene. Balls were parties thrown by queer people starting in the 1920s as a way to come together in a safe space and have some fun. With rising political race tensions through the 50’s and 60’s the scene was fractured and balls became segregated, often with black or black and Latino-only houses competing. Houses in the scene were not formed until the early 70’s starting with the first house, the House of LeBeija. These houses served as a chosen family for queer youth who were either abandoned by their families or ran away from home. Headed by a “mother”, each house was known for certain characteristics. For example, members of the House of Xtraviganza were known for their natural beauty while the House of Ninja was known for their dance skills. Houses competed against each other for prizes and the title of the best house. Willi founded the House of Ninja along with Sandy Apollonia Ninja, formerly from the House of LeBeija, where they served as house mothers. The House of Ninja serves as a multiracial family and currently has 220 members worldwide.

Want to learn more about gay club culture in the 70s and 80s? Click here.

Death and Legacy

Willi Ninja pushed vogue, and queer club culture as a whole, into the mainstream (Image Source:

Willi Ninja died on September 2nd, 2006 of AIDS-related heart failure. Even until his death at age 46, Willi mentored upcoming dancers and models, as well as contributing to the discussion of HIV/AIDS awareness in the queer community.

His legacy is felt even now as his work inspired many artists and continues to inspire dancers and queer people today. Willi was featured in Malcome McLaren's “Deep in Vogue” music video and inspired Madonna’s number one song “Vogue”. He is also a central figure in LGBT+ and gender studies for his passionate and nonconforming expression as an artist.

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