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LGBTQ Nation: Google salutes ballroom legend & “Godfather of Voguing” Willi Ninja


Google’s homepage is unusually fierce today. The search engine is honoring Willi Ninja, one of the pioneers of ballroom culture, with a special Pride Month Google Doodle.

The company’s homepage features a redesigned logo that evokes the late 1980s, with illustrations of Ninja by artist Rob Gilliam. It also links to video tribute to the late dancer and choreographer’s life and art.

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Known as the “Godfather of Voguing,” Ninja was a major figure in New York City’s ballroom subculture in the 1980s and ’90s. As a special Google Arts & Culture page devoted to ballroom culture notes, Ninja honed his distinctive style of dancing on the Christopher Street Piers, a popular hub for the city’s queer community along the Hudson River in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. He drew inspiration from fashion editorials, hieroglyphics, and martial arts.

As Sally Sommer, a professor of dance at Florida State University, told the New York Times in his 2006 obituary, Ninja may not have invented voguing, but he perfected it.

He established his own House of Ninja in 1982. The name, he told sociologist and hip-hop scholar Tricia Rose in her 1994 book Microphone Fiends, was partly inspired by the fact that he and his crew “seemed to come out of nowhere and we struck hard.”

“A Ninja is like an invisible assassin,” he explained. “He completes his assignment and leaves. That’s exactly what we did when we went to the first ball. We won and we left. Everybody was like, who the hell are they?”

Ninja’s profile grew exponentially after he was featured in Jennie Livingston’s influential 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. He later appeared in the video for Malcolm McLaren’s 1989 single “Deep in Vogue,” as well as videos for two of Janet Jackson’s singles from her 1989 album Rhythm Nation. He would go on to release his own song, “Hot,” in 1994, walk the runway for fashion designers Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler, and open his own modeling agency.

Ninja died of AIDS-related heart failure at the age of 45 in 2006, but the House of Ninja lives on. In 2021, members of the house partnered with Reebok, appearing in ads for the brand’s Pride collection.

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