Arts and Culture 2011

Amy Holtcamp

SOUTH CAROLINA INSIDER

 

Shag is a three letter word -- FUN

Posted 9/13/2010 11:41:00 AM

The heart of Ocean Drive is a few blocks of North Myrtle Beach's Main Street leading down to the beach. Today it’s filled with bikinis, ice cream parlors and beach clubs. But it was here, way back in the 1930s, that the jitterbug met R&B and the dance we know today as “the shag,” was born.


Twice a year, hundreds of shaggers return to this strip of North Myrtle Beach for S.O.S. weekend -- a twice-yearly migration hosted by the Society of Stranders each spring and fall to dance, meet up with old friends, and relive the days when shag was king.

If you’ve never shuffled across the dance floor to “Under the Boardwalk,” here’s what you need to know about the shag: For starters, it’s the official state dance of South Carolina. It’s similar to swing dancing in terms of beats and timing, but slower and smoother. When you watch expert shaggers on the floor, their upper bodies are calm and relaxed, but from the waist down they give new meaning to the term “fancy footwork.” The shag is danced to R&B or Motown rather than fast-paced swing, and of course traditional beach music.

The shag has been called a “lazy jitterbug,” and indeed the dance has its roots in the jitterbug, a fast and furious dance that involved lots of embellished turns, lifts and spins.

There are many theories as to what caused the dance to slow down. One is that because the kids in South Carolina were dancing on the beach, the jitterbug’s fast steps would send sand flying into your partner’s face. The jitterbug involved athletic lifts like the “Around the World,” which sent the lady hopping over the man’s back. Some shaggers say that the Carolina heat made outdoor dancing a sweaty proposition; the last thing you wanted to do with a dance partner you were hoping to impress was to sling her over your sweat-soaked back. Still others say the signature style developed so that you could dance without spilling your cocktail.

Whatever the reason, the relaxed nature of shagging is definitely one of the things that makes it so appealing. The atmosphere at shag clubs is just as relaxed, and the dance’s smooth pace allows you to have a conversation while you dance. Also, although the footwork demands skill, it is easy on the body, making it a dance that you can keep doing into retirement.

Many people do just that. In fact, at the S.O.S. Spring Safari many of the attendees were people who first fell in love with the shag when they danced in the Grand Strand pavilions back in the 1950s and 1960s.

The culture around the shag is centered on having a good time. Yet, in a world that seems increasingly obsessed with youth, S.O.S. is a place where grown ups cut loose: a party atmosphere complete with loud music, dancing, and celebrations that spill onto the streets. Oh, and beer. There’s plenty of beer, too.

One S.O.S. volunteer put it more bluntly: “It’s Spring Break for old farts.”

And like most good things, the dance has seen something of a revival in recent years with young people. More and more nightclubs, like Jillian’s in Columbia, hold weekly “Shag Nights,” and shag dancing is alive on college campuses.

Jeni Miller, a recent USC graduate, learned to shag her freshman year at a university event called “Shagging at Midnight” that offered shag instruction on the campus’s historic Horseshoe as a way of helping the new students break the ice and meet new people.

“The thing about the shag is that it is a very social dance,” Miller said. “It’s ingrained with Southern charm.”

Perhaps it’s that Southern charm that’s at play on the packed dance floor of Fat Harold’s Beach Club in North Myrtle Beach. There are so many shaggers crammed into the club that collisions seem inevitable. But no one here shows the slightest sign of claustrophobia as they flit around their slot on the floor, feet flying, all smiles.

Across the street at Ducks and Ducks Too there are four dance floors similarly crawling with happy shaggers. Like Fat Harold’s, Ducks has a long history as a shag club.

At the end of the street, the open air O.D. Sunset Grill joins in the fun of S.O.S., blasting beach tunes. You can take a turn on the jam-packed dance floor, or try out a few steps with the crowds that spill out toward the beach, kicking off their shoes and doing the shag the way they did in the old days: with the sand between their toes.

If you can’t make it to Myrtle Beach for the S.O.S. Spring Safari or Fall Migration, never fear. Ocean Drive is a shag mecca all year long, as the vast collection of shag memorabilia and photos lining the walls of the clubs and shops will attest. Places like Fat Harold’s, Ducks and Ducks Too, the Spanish Galleon and others offer live beach music, shag dancing and lessons for beginners every week.

The Grand Strand is where the shag was born, but it’s popular throughout the state, particularly in the coastal regions. Jerry and Barbara Wade are native Charlestonians who grew up dancing at pavilions on Folly Beach and Isle of Palms. Today the couple, who have been shag dancing for more than 50 years and have been married almost as long, are shag instructors.

“It’s sometimes hard to put into words just what we would like people to know about this dance that we love so much,” Barbara Wade said. “We love the music and the challenge of learning new steps. The social aspect of getting with people who share the same love for the dance and the wonderful friendships we make.”

The Wades are passionate about keeping the shag alive. S.O.S., the shag clubs throughout the state, and newcomers to the dance, like Miller and the USC co-eds, are all important parts of doing just that.

“Most of the people who shag dance are like us – interested in preserving the state dance of South Carolina because it is a reflection of southern tradition and southern heritage,” Barbara Wade said. But the most important part about shag dancing, she adds: “Always remember that shag is a three-letter-word: F-U-N!”


For more information:

The S.O.S. will hold its annual Fall Migration on September 17-26. Visit www.shagdance.com for more details.

If you’re in Charleston, why not drop in and take a class with Barbara and Jerry Wade? For more information on private lessons or group classes with the Wades visit www.charlestonshagcompany.com.

Watch a video of our SC Arts Insider experiencing the Shag dancing scene in
North Myrtle Beach, SC!