NEW YORK — Dancer Willi Ninja, whose skill in the gender-bending art of “voguing” influenced Madonna and was immortalized in the documentary film “Paris Is Burning,” has died, friends and relatives said Tuesday.
Ninja died Saturday of AIDS-related illnesses at New York Hospital Medical Center of Queens, they said. He was 45.
Inspired by Fred Astaire, “Great Performances” on PBS, Asian culture and Olympic gymnasts, Ninja was a self-taught performer who stitched together a patchwork of a career that extended into the worlds of dance, fashion and music.
The critically acclaimed 1990 documentary, directed by Jennie Livingston, shed light on the exotic gay subculture in which the cross-dressing participants, many of them black and Hispanic, displayed their costumes and styles at Manhattan balls.
Judges rated participants on the realness of their drag impersonations; and on a deeper level, the balls became a colorful demonstration of serious issues of gender, class and race.
In its review of “Paris Is Burning,” The New York Times called Ninja “a lithe, articulate young man who also happens to be a master in the art of ‘voguing,’ in which dancers attempt to top each other by using gymnastics and the gestures of high-fashion models.”
Madonna cites his influence
Madonna used the style in 1990 in her No. 1 hit record and video “Vogue.” Speaking through a spokeswoman Tuesday, the singer said she was sorry to hear of Ninja’s death.
“He was a great cultural influence to me and hundreds of thousands of other people,” she said.
In a 1991 Associated Press interview, Ninja — born William Leake in 1961 — said the drag queen balls began in the 1960s, and over the years new varieties of performance, including voguing, evolved as more gays participated.
“I didn’t find out about it until 1980. ... I didn’t know what this was about. I began learning from the experts, and I developed my own style,” he said.
His career boosted by the attention from “Paris Is Burning,” he performed with dance companies, worked under noted choreographers and instructed models and socialites how to walk and pose with frisson.
Livingston said Ninja, a “supremely gifted dancer” who was dedicated to his craft, was “one of the main reasons” she made the film.
She recalled walking through Washington Square Park one summer and spotting young men voguing beneath a tree. She approached them to learn about this dance, which was new to her, and the young men told her to look up Ninja.
“Whenever you talk about vogue or voguing, Willi’s name is there,” Livingston said in an interview Tuesday. “Willi refined voguing. He really brought it to an amazing level.”
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