Willie Covan was born March 4, 1897 in Savannah, Georgia. By the time he was five, he was already getting people’s attention for his dancing. Before his death, he would be credited with tap dancing staples such as rhythm waltz clog and the around the world (commonly known as coffee grinders today).
Beginning his career during childhood as a
in the show “Cosy Smith and her Six Pickaninnies.” Covan’s next big break came in the early twentieth century when he formed a group with his wife, brother, and friend in the Four Covans. Though this group was an ensemble, Willie shined in it with his frantic energy and leg work (legomania).
Broken into six acts, the show started simply enough with a jazz number that progressed to buck and wing tap. It escalated to a challenge dance coming to a climax when Covan wins the contest with some of his best acrobatics with the others doing a Broadway style dance. His style is still noted for its incredibly physical, acrobatic work.
The year 1926 cemented Willie Covan’s place in history when he paired up with Leonard Ruffin and stopped the show with “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Though being a “show-stopper” is often thought of as the highest compliment, it actually made it harder for the team to find places to perform.
The Palace was, and still is, one of the most coveted places to perform. The team of Covan and Ruffin were such a hit, the audience would boo whoever came on the stage next. Instead of placing the duo as the headliner at the end of the show, the managers fired the two instead. The same thing happened at the Hippodrome.
Tired of trying to talk managers into hiring an act that would stop the show,this hoofer instead opened his own nightclub in the late 1920’s. It was here he had the freedom to dance when and as much as he pleased.
The 1930’s saw the next phase of his career. It was during this time MGM Studios had an opening for the position of head dance instructor. Eleanor Powell is credited with helping him get the job. It’s from this position that he would influence the careers of stars such as Mickey Rooney, Ann Miller, Shirley Temple, Mae West, and Debbie Reynolds.
Having seen the glory days of tap dancing at the turn of the twentieth century as well as its resurgence in the latter half of the century, Willie Covan died on May 7, 1989 in Los Angeles of natural causes.
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