Underground Gay Dance Culture Keeps 'Voguing' Legacy Alive
1 year ago
Having lost many to AIDS/HIV, LBGT dance community lives on
In Loop 21's three part series, Underground Gay Dance Culture Keeps 'Voguing' Legacy Alive, writer Joi-Marie McKenzie takes readers deep inside the House of Ninja, after their founder and Vogue icon Willi Ninja passes away from HIV/AIDS. With a disease that is heavily affecting the gay and lesbian community, the series sheds light on one of the hardest hit communities.
William Leake lay dying from AIDS. It was August of 2006, and the 45-year-old dancer was confined to a bed at the New York Hospital Medical Center of Queens. He had lost his ability to walk, a crushing turn for a man who had once impressed club kids with his signature move: extending one leg 180 degrees straight over his head. More recently, retinitis had claimed Leake’s eyesight. Blindness made him feel particularly lonely, so the people closest to him, the members of his dance crew or “house,” began taking turns keeping him company in the hospital.
Javier Madrid, then 22, sat beside the bed. An ambitious dancer in his own right, Madrid was also the youngest member of Leake’s house. He watched the man who introduced him to vogue — an underground dance form that sprung from Harlem’s gay club scene — feebly try to strike dance poses in his hospital bed. Leake, better known as “Willi Ninja,” told Madrid he wanted to attend the annual Latex Ball, the biggest vogue competition in New York, the following week.
“Willi, no. As sick as you are?” Madrid said. But that didn't matter to Leake. He loved to dance. He felt that nothing, not even AIDS, could stop him.
“I just want to twirl,” Leake pleaded, half-seriously.
“Don’t worry about it,” Madrid reasoned with him. “I’ll bring a trophy back for you.”
Beneath the small talk, both men knew what neither wanted to say: Leake didn’t have much time. Even if Madrid could pull off winning a trophy at the ball, there was no guarantee that his mentor would still be around to see it.
Among his peers, Leake is revered as “the godfather of vogue.” He helped create and shape a dance form inspired by fashion models’ poses, runway walks and glamour. Named after the glossy magazine of the same name, the vogue dance style was devised by gay men. It celebrates a confident attitude and emphasizes poses, contortions and dips. Today, voguers perform primarily at “balls,” or competitions. Collectively, the ballroom scene is comprised of “houses,” which host the dance battles and act like fraternities. Each house has a “mother” and a “father,” who lead the group in everything from teaching dance practices to helping their members find jobs. Some of the better-known houses in New York include the House of Ebony, the House of Xtravaganza, the House of Mizrahi and the House of Ninja, which Leake created in 1982.