Homo Killer Pose
Willi Ninja, Mother of the House of Ninja and one of the stars of Jennie Livingston’s brilliant 1990 documentary about Harlem ballroom culture, Paris is Burning, died Saturday at the age of 45, ending his bout with a long-term illness.
If you don’t remember Ninja, perhaps you’ll remember the dance style of which he was a master and that was consequently made into a worldwide obsession after Madonna discovered it one night at a New York club. It became the basis for one of her most iconic songs—”vogue.” A few years ago, several breakdancers active in the 1980’s and ‘90’s confessed to me that, despite the fact that Willia Ninja was homosexual (a taboo in old school b-boy culture), he commanded their absolute and final respect because of the way he had mastered his mind and his body and integrated them both subjectively and objectively.
In Malcolm McLaren’s 1989 song “Deep in Vogue,” there’s a soundbyte from an interview with Ninja in which he states:
The House of Xtravaganza, the House of Ebony, the House of Dupree: Who the hell are they? You know, they’re somebody when they’re in that little ballroom
Of course, that wasn’t strictly true for him. He and two other voguers from that scene “made it” in the relative big time. He became an active choreographer, walked a few runway shows in Paris, was photographed and interviewed, and gave vogue performances throughout Europe and in Asia. While not a superstar, he was an ambassador of a creative spire of queer culture in the proper sense—one that continues to flourish in ballrooms from L.A. to Chicago to Atlanta to New York. His performances were the perfection of physical expression—an heroic marriage of athleticism and aesthetics. He will be missed.
If you want to see him and a load of other dancers practicing what really constituted vogue back in his day, I’ve uploaded an excellent video to YouTube. You’ll be surprised; it’s so much more than striking a pose. Fittingly, Willi Ninja is the first figure on the screen: