Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Remembering Willi Ninja

Hey there,

3 years ago, today, Willi Ninja passed away. At the age of 45, he died in NYC of AIDS-related heart failure.

I was watching America's Best Dance Crew a week or so ago, and hadn't really thought about Willi Ninja recently, until I saw one of the teams, Vogue Evolution, continue to make it to the next round of competition.

Now Voguing is definitely not my personal preferred style, and I'll admit I didn't care too much for it for a while but that had more to do with a lack of understanding, or not seeing it done in the spirit of where it come from. I also wonder how much of that had to do with my own personal journey in terms of identity in the LGBT community as well as understanding myself in terms of gender expression, but that's a post for another day.

For now, while I still don't do it myself, I love watching those who do, and do it it well. I've also been fortunate enough to personally know and be friends with some of those people, in the DC area. And I definitely appreciate it for what it is and where it came from.

So, as I was watching the ABDC episode I couldn't help but think not only how long vogue dancing has been around, as Willi Ninja is credited as having contributed to inspiring Madonna with her hit song "Vogue", but also how only recently has it really surfaced in the main stream. I've even known some B-boy friends who've incorporated voguing into their battle vocabulary.

You may have heard of a film called Paris is Burning, in which Willi Ninja was featured. You've probably also seen members of his house, the House of Ninja, in music videos and movies, like Danielle Polanco (formerly of the House of Ninja).

Anyway, I had the fortune of meeting Willi Ninja during 2005's Winter Music Conference.

Barbara Tucker, one of house music's divas, hosts an event called, "Let the Singer Be Heard", to pay tribute to vocalists in the electronic music subgenre, and give them a chance to sing their latest hits.

A friend at the time was close to both of them and I was introduced at this event, and had a chance to see him dance in person. Needless to say, it was a memory which the weight of didn't quite sink in at first.

I'd actually come across his name before, not just through LGBT culture, but in academia. I came across a book called "Microphone Friends: Youth Music & Youth Culture" in doing a research paper on dance, community, and identity. He wrote a chapter called "Not a Mutant Turtle".

This quote from a People article:
"He was tall man, about 6 ft. 3 in.," Sally Sommer, a professor of dance at Florida State University, tells The New York Times, "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."
For further reading on Voguing and Willi Ninja, I recommend checking out, Voguing: Madonna and Cyclical Reappropriation. Also wanted to link an piece that inspired me to revisit this post, after a friend tagged me in his post on Facebook, Welcome to the Ballroom, where Voguing is always in style.

But I digress.

Meeting Willi Ninja in Miami at the Winter Music Conference...I value this memory more as time goes on, and having met this icon in person continues to be both humbling and inspiring. So I write this note in memory of him. As a dancer and a person, honoring someone who truly had his own style and technique, and lived to unconditionally share his joy with the world.

JR

Updated 3/6/13
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