ON September 2nd, the Religion of Antinous honors St. Willi Ninja, who made the whole world take notice of a gay ghetto dance style called Vogueing.
Vogueing ... with its angular body movements, exaggerated model poses and intricate mime-like choreography ... and the colorful characters who populated Willi Ninja's world were introduced to the public at large by Paris Is Burning, the award-winning 1990 documentary about New York's drag vogue-ball scene. Later in his career, Willi Ninja also performed in works by postmodern choreographers including Doug Elkins, David Neuman and Karole Armitage.
Vogueing had been around for years, but Willi Ninja brought it to a level of visibility and perfection in performance that no one had ever reached before, according to Sally Sommer, a professor of dance at Florida State University.
"He was tall man, about 6-3," she said, "and God gave him the biggest, broadest dance shoulders in the world, so when he would do those things with his arms it was just so impressive."
Willi Ninja is featured in Sommer's 2006 documentary Check Your Body at the Door.
William R. Leake was born in Queens New York on April 12, 1961. He began dancing at 7. By the early 1980s he was vogueing in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village and at drag balls throughout Harlem. He prided himself on being a clean, sharp dancer, with swiftly moving arms and hands, and he was deeply inspired by the martial arts ... hence his adopted name, Ninja.
As the "mother" of the House of Ninja ... part dance troupe, part surrogate family ... he became a New York celebrity, known as much for his quick wit and sharp tongue as for his darting limbs.
His ensembles ... a coat made of braided synthetic hair, a suit jacket with a skirt and Doc Marten boots ... also turned heads wherever he went: "SEVERE" is the word.
An androgynous, self-described "butch queen," St. Willi Ninja taught vogueing throughout Europe and Japan, modeled in runway shows for the fashion designers Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler and danced in music videos such as Madonna's 1990 hit "Vogue".
He also taught models how to strut, giving stars like Naomi Campbell pointers early in their careers. Before his death in 2006, he worked with the socialite Paris Hilton, whose red carpet sashay has since become her signature.
In 2004, he opened a modeling agency, EON (Elements of Ninja), but he never gave up dancing, appearing on televisions series like "America's Next Top Model" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live", and dropping in at local clubs.
"If he saw someone doing something on the dance floor that he loved, he'd walk up to them and say, 'Oooh, child, you are fierce,'" his friend Archie Burnett recalled. "That was one of his highest compliments."
In 2003 he was diagnosed with HIV, but he continued working to support his elderly mother, despite the fact that he could not afford medical health care for himself.
His mother was a wheelchair-bound woman suffering from Parkinson's. One of Ninja's best friends, fellow dancer Archie Burnett, said St. Willi was always grateful that his mother had taken him to the ballet and the Apollo when he was a boy, which inspired him to become a dancer. So he was determined to care for her at the expense of his own seriously declining health.
St. Willi Ninja died September 2, 2006, three years after an HIV diagnosis. In the end, the famous dancer had lost his sight and become paralyzed. But that didn't stop him from being fabulous.
"He was weak, but let me tell you, he was running the show," his friend Archie said, recalling how his acolytes did his hair in the hospital room.
He said, "Child, if I gonna die, then I want to look as fabulous as possible."
The Religion of Antinous honors Willi Ninja as a Saint of Antinous and Blessed Prophet of Homoeros for his courage in overcoming racial discrimination and homophobia. While others of his generation turned to drugs or alcohol or dysfunctional violence to assuage their shattered self-esteem ... St. Willi Ninja turned to the dance floor, where he converted the simple act of walking into a high-art form of sheer FABULOUSNESS.