Stylish Performer Taught Stars to Do His Steps : Willie Covan, 92; Veteran Tap-Dancer

Times Staff Writer

William McKinley (Willie) Covan, a stylish and versatile tap-dancer who taught his unique steps to generations of Hollywood stars and lesser-known aspiring hoofers, has died in Los Angeles, family members said Wednesday.

Known as "Poetry in Motion" on marquees and to his peers, Covan, 92, died Sunday, said his granddaughter, Patricia Pitts.

"I've seen two great dancing acts," Sammy Davis Sr. once observed, "one was Bill Robinson, the other was Covan and Ruffin."

Native of Georgia

Covan, born March 4, 1897, in Savannah, Ga., began dancing in vaudeville at age 9, and soon was touring the West Coast.

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 he was no teacher," Covan told The Times in a 1981 interview. "He couldn't even teach me the time step and told me I'd never learn how to dance."

Covan then met "Friendless" George, a dancer with a deformed leg. "He gave me the only real dancing lessons I ever had. He could do a time step with that one good leg."

The young Covan built a practice floor in his basement and eventually danced his way into a troupe that toured the West. "When we got back from California, I could dance a lot better than Harry," he said.

The pinnacle for young black dancers then was a Chicago dance contest that attracted entrants from throughout the Midwest. When he was 16, Covan, who had been preparing for a year, entered.

"They didn't use the orchestra," he said, "just one man on the stage with a banjo. He would play two beats, bop-bop, and you were on."

Covan watched all the dancers before him open with the time step, but he decided "to go for the meat right now" by opening with "wings, a roll, a grab-off and a double wing."

He won the contest and $100, and his friends carried him on their shoulders "all the way to State Street. But that wasn't the main thing. The main thing was that everybody knew I was the greatest dancer in Chicago."

Covan and his partner, Leonard Ruffin, became one of the first black dance acts to be booked into New York City's Palace Theater, and he also appeared in a long series of hit musicals.

"I've never been any place in the world where they didn't like tap-dancing," Covan said, "but no other country does it. Only in America. It came out of the plantations, and it belongs to us."

Inventive Style

Covan invented an unusual routine called "around the world with no hands," performed in a squat with the legs kicking out in a circular motion.

Eleanor Powell brought him to MGM to teach dancing to pupils, ranging from Debbie Reynolds to Mae West to Gregory Peck. Encouraged by West, he opened the Willie Covan Dance Studio in Los Angeles in the mid-1930s and trained students there for 35 years.

"My grandfather used to teach people from the San Fernando Valley, Ventura, Oxnard, wherever," Pitts said . "And that was before freeways. He closed the dance school in 1974, but continued teaching his style to professional dancers, such as Debbie Allen, at his home."

In addition to his granddaughter, Covan is survived by a daughter, Marie Washington, and several grandchildren. Services will be at 1 p.m. Friday at the Angelus Funeral Home, 3875 Crenshaw Blvd., with burial at Inglewood Park Cemetery.

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