Highlighting Black + LGBT Pioneers: Willi Ninja

Willi Ninja, born William Roscoe Leake, was an American choreographer and dancer known for his iconic dance style featured in the movie Paris is Burning. Identifying as a gay man, Ninja’s distinctive dance style was inspired by Fred Astaire, young Michael Jackson, Olympic gymnasts, Asian culture and haute couture. Although Ninja did not create the style which became known as voguing, he made it more refined and distinguished which is why he is called the godfather of voguing. During the 1980’s in Harlem, ball culture was a huge fixture in the black LGBT community and Willi Ninja was the godfather of vogue. Ball walkers competed on the realness of their outfits in a certain category and would try to top one another by freezing or posing in positions so glamourous it was as if they were being photographed for the cover of Vogue.

When hearing about his AIDS related death in 2006, Jennie Livingston, director of Paris is Burning said “Mr. Ninja a “supremely gifted dancer” who was dedicated to his craft, was "one of the main reasons" she made the film.”

As we see the embracing of the ball scene in pop culture and tv shows (Pose), the legacy of Willi Ninja remains an inspiration for people, LGBT or otherwise, even today.

Biographical information source adaptations from

Graphic from @queerportraits – IG