Who is Willi Ninja, the LGBTQiA+ icon Google celebrated with doodle?

Willi Ninja was called the 'Godfather of Voguing'


Google is celebrating Pride Month by featuring legendary dancer William Roscoe Leake aka Willi Ninja, who is called the 'Godfather of Voguing'. Willi's significant contributions in the 1980s and 1990s, characterised by his precise movements and dramatic poses, played a pivotal role in advancing the representation and acceptance of Black LGBTQiA+ community.

In a tribute to Willi's legacy, Google unveiled a doodle featuring an animated avatar of the performer, showcasing some of his iconic dance moves. The doodle includes a play icon within a disco ball at its centre. Clicking on the play button opens a brief YouTube video featuring 'The Iconic House of Ninja', a community established by Willi that continues to thrive even 17 years after his passing.

Illustrated by Rob Gilliam, the doodle video was edited by Xander Opiyo, with original music composed by Vivacious. The video showcases performances by current members of the House of Ninja, including Archie Burnett Ninja, Javier Madrid Ninja, Kiki Ninja, and Akiko Tokuoka, also known as KiT Ninja, as they joyfully celebrate Willi's enduring impact.

This day marks his 62nd birth anniversary and 33 years of the release of the documentary 'Paris is Burning' in the US, at the NewFest New York LGBT Film Festival, in 1990. The film prominently featured Willi and the Iconic House of Ninja, introducing his unique dance style to a wider audience and showcased the ball culture of New York city which garnered significant success.

Willi was born in 1961 and raised in Flushing, Queens. His mother nurtured his interest in dance and took him to ballet performances at the Apollo theatre despite their tight financial circumstances. She also played a pivotal role in supporting his identity and encouraged him to pursue his passion for dance. He started dancing at 7. Since he was inspired by martial arts, he named himself Ninja. Willi self-learned the art and specialised in voguing – a dance style that blends fashion poses with intricate movements inspired by mime and martial arts. Voguing emerged from the Harlem ballroom scene, which served as a safe haven founded by Black and Latino LGBTQiA+ individuals to express themselves and foster unity.

In the ballroom culture, Black and Latino people aligned themselves with groups known as houses, providing them with an extended social family and support system in the face of potential rejection from their biological families. In 1982, Willi co-founded his own community called the House of Ninja, where he continued to offer guidance and support to its members even after achieving fame.

Apart from being a dancer and choreographer, Willi also made significant contributions as a model, effectively introducing voguing to a wider audience through his performances, music videos, and runway presentations. His influence reached beyond the realm of dance, establishing him as a notable figure within the fashion industry. He collaborated with renowned designers and participated in numerous fashion shows, solidifying his presence and impact.

Throughout his career, Willi played a crucial role in raising awareness and fostering acceptance of the LGBTQiA+ community, particularly within the ballroom culture. He utilised his exceptional talent and platform to challenge societal norms and encourage the exploration of self-expression. Due to AIDS-related heart failure, he died at 45. Even after his passing, his footprints in voguing and ballroom culture continue to inspire dancers, artists, and performers worldwide. The House of Ninja continues to dance in his honour, carrying his legacy forward with pride.