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Black News and News Makers in History: Willie Covan

African American news from Pasadena - Black News and News Makers in History recognizes Willie Covan this week in Black history.Willie Covan was born March 4, 1897 in Savannah, Georgia. A versatile dancer, he earned the nickname "Poetry in Motion."

He 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. 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").

Later, as a dance star, he danced with Leonard Ruffindoing in an elegant soft shoe routine. Ruffin at the time was considered the better soft shoe dancer, but Covan was much more versatile in dance and could perform acrobatics.

Covan and Ruffin helped define the Class Act team. Using the soft shoe as their base, they were so good they got fired from the Palace Theatre in New York, the place to be if you were good. After they would perform at the Palace, no one could go on after them as the audience booed every act that followed. After shifting the team around in different spots with the same results, they had to fire them. This happened at the Hipodrome Theatre, too.

By 1921, Willie would meet and marry Florence, an Everglades Club chorus dancer. Eventually, he and Florence joined his brother Dewey and his wife and became known as the Four Covan's with Willie at the helm.

By 1927, The Four Covan's became headliners at many clubs including Sebastian's Club in Los Angeles, The Orpheum and Keith's Circuits and starred at the elusive Palace Theatre in New York City which as a dancer, doing anything at the Palace was a major achievement, let alone being headliners.

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 six parts. First, all four Covan's did a jazz number (no tap). This slowed to a tap-waltz done to a Russian Lullaby tune. This led 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. This finished 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 a Russian dance, Kazotsky's in Stop Time. Finally they finished the performance in a challenge dance among the group with Willie going last.

Willie, along with his cousin, Maxie McCree, and others were the pioneers among acrobatic dancers, however he loved tap dance the most.

Willie went on to work with and teach many stars over the years with his first being Mae West. Others followed 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 California and became the resident choreographer for MGM Studios, Hollywood.

Willie left a legacy of dance to many thru his innovations, performing and teaching. Willie passed away May 7, 1989 in Los Angeles. He was the uncle of DeForest Covan.

Compiled from http://www.streetswing.com/histmai2/d2willie_covan1.htm.

 
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