Willie Covan is credited with creating many tap techniques and steps still widely used today, including the Rhythm Waltz Clog and Around the World. Born on this day in Georgia in 1896, he was already dancing by age 5. By his late childhood, he was tap dancing professionally. Versatile dancer Willie Covan and his cousin Maxie McCree started dancing at a very young age with Cozy Smith and her Pickaninnies on the George Webster circuit in the Dakotas. When he was 8 and living in Chicago he met Harry Yancey, who had been in an act of very young black dancers who shared bills with major white performers. Yancey captivated him with tales of touring the West, riding horses and picking oranges and lemons from trees in California. Covan was so smitten by the idea that he hustled part-time jobs and began paying Yancey to teach him to dance but Yancey was no teacher so as a young dancer Covan worked out many Buck and Wing and Acrobatic movements to dance including the "Double Around the World (aka Coffee Grinder.)
In the teens he appeared with his wife, brother and a friend in the Four Covans." When the Covan's danced, Willie was the star of the show, however their act was a well planned group effort. None of the performers ever left the Stage during the act. Their act consisted of 6 parts with the first being all four Covan's doing a Jazz number (no Tap) which slowed to a Tap-Waltz done to a Russian Lullaby tune. This lead into the others falling back and clapping a rhythm while Willie did his first Tap and Buck and Wing solo to a medium paced song called Rose Room finishing with the orchestra playing half tempo and Willie doing some Amazing Acrobatics while the others becoming a precision tap ensemble in a Russian Flair with the whole group finishing with Kazotsky's in Stop Time (See Russian Dance) and finally finishing the performance in a Challenge dance among the group with Willie going last.
In 1922 he was cast in the pathbreaking African American production Shuffle Along. Two years later, he appeared with Florence Mills in the British hit Dover Street to Dixie, which became Dixie to Broadway when it moved to New York. Also in 1924, he could be seen across the country in the film On With The Show with Ethel Waters.
Covan teamed with fellow hoofer Leonard Ruffin. "I've seen two great dancing acts," Sammy Davis Sr. once observed, "one was Bill Robinson, the other was Covan and Ruffin." Covan was known as "Poetry in Motion" on marquees and to his peers. The pair appeared at the Palace in 1926, where they introduced the song “Sweet Georgia Brown” and stopped the show. In fact, success became his enemy. His repeated curtain calls every night confounded the managers who couldn’t or wouldn’t bump white performers who were further up the bill. This conundrum cost him his gig at the Palace, as well as his next one at the Hippodrome. He finally opened his own night club in L.A. in the late 20s, where he could dance when and where he liked.
In the 30s, Eleanor Powell got him a job as head dance instructor at MGM, where he coached the likes of Mae West, Ann Miller and countless others, such as Vera Ellen, Jeannette MacDonald, Mickey Rooney, Kirk Douglas, 11 year old Shirley Temple, Bobby Burgess, Debbie Reynolds, Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke to name just a few, however he never got any film credit for any of it. He opened his own South Central, L.A. Dance studio in CA. and became the resident choreographer for MGM Studios, Hollywood, CA He was teaching dance to Hollywood performers well into the 1980s. He “shuffled” off this mortal coil in 1989.