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Willi Ninja – Vogueing through history

By |2018-01-15T15:54:12-05:00September 14th, 2006|News|

Willi Ninja is dead. The 45-year-old founder of the House of Ninja died Sept. 2, following a lengthy battle with AIDS. He was known as the father of Vogue – the dance style that Madonna brought to the consciousness of the masses with a number one hit of the same name – and the star of the film “Paris Is Burning.”
But when I met Willi in late 1990, I knew little of his accomplishments, indeed, and little of my self.
To remember the details of our brief friendship is to take a journey through time, to a Miami that no longer exists, and to view things through the eyes of the boy that I no longer am. South Beach was a magical place to live in those early post-“Miami Vice” days. The city was just coming back to full neon life and Lincoln Road was awash with quaint eateries and storefront after storefront of hip one-of-a-kind shops. There was nary a sign that the district would one day be invaded by the usual culprits – a megaplex, the Gap, Foot Locker and Victoria’s Secret.
I lived on Collins and Eighth, in a $350-a-month efficiency that is today a boutique hotel that goes for nearly that a night in the peak season. It was a good address. My friend Maggie Sanchez wasn’t quite so lucky. She lived on Collins and Second, and at that time anything below Fifth Street was considered seedy and unsafe. Today, the neighborhood is all high-priced condos and home to Beyonce, among others.
Maggie, a transplant from New York, worked with me and my boyfriend, Johnny, at Burdines – The Florida Store, which is now, like most other regional department stores in the nation, Macy’s. Maggie had a real flare and it was fun to hang out with her and Rick, another Burdines boy and New York native who was staying with her at the time. She had a full house, including a friend from New York who was in town to dance at a few clubs. Willi was quite eccentric, tall and broad shouldered with big eyes that knew just how to take in a room in seconds.
I was told he was a star of the ballroom scene, but the term meant nothing to me at the time. The only ballroom I knew of was the Warsaw Ballroom on Collins and Espanola Way, the island’s hottest gay club and one I’d never managed to sneak my underage behind into. (A fake ID I procured the following year would prove my entree to the club and I wouldn’t be disappointed, though Torpedo at Collins and Sixth was still more my speed.)
No doubt hoping to impress me, Willi let me look through his scrapbook, full of photos of him dancing his way through Paris and other ports of interest. He put the moves on me one night in Maggie’s bedroom, but I was more smitten with the Puerto Rican friend he was traveling with (time has erased his name from my memory but not the image of his mane of long, black curly hair, which I helped him blow out one night on his way to the club) and I settled for a backrub instead.
Within weeks Willi was gone, as suddenly as he had appeared, but he proved impossible to forget. Especially some months later when I was thumbing through the paper at my friend Lavel’s house and saw his face staring back at me. Willi told me he’d filmed a movie, and low and behold, it had finally been released and was playing at the Bakery Centre. Lavel and I went to see it the day it opened.
Lavel left Miami around the same time I did, he headed for San Francisco and I came home to Detroit in 1997. By that time, most of the stars of “Paris Is Burning” were history. Angie Xtravaganza and Dorian Corey both died AIDS-related deaths in 1993, and the latter became known for the mummified body – allegedly that of an old boyfriend – found in her closet. Pepper LaBeija died of a heart attack in 2003, and for the past three years it’s been Willi alone who carried the banner. Recent reports even went so far as to call him the “grandfather of Vogue,” indicating that to today’s ballroom scene, this legend was damn near ancient.
Willi’s death truly marks the end of an era. But whenever I hear his name I’ll always think back fondly to a more innocent time in my life, to the fun and frolic of youth. They say, “dance like no one’s watching,” but when Willi twirled, you couldn’t take your eyes off him.

About the Author:

Jason A. Michael is senior staff writer for Between The Lines and the Pride Source Media Group. He has been writing for the paper since 1999. Jason is also an Essence bestselling author. He may be reached at [email protected].
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