Shag dancing (also known as shagging or shag), in a Coastal Carolina context, has nothing to do with Austin Powers or British slang. (Although, as one old-timer told dance instructor Kurt Lichtmann, “Shag is a warm night with a cold beer and a hot date.”) Instead, it’s a distinctive dance style long associated with the Cape Fear coast and the South Carolina Grand Strand.
Conventional histories say that shag originated sometime in the mid-1930s in Atlantic Beach, S.C., as a spin-off of a dance called the Big Apple. It supposedly took off when it hit Myrtle Beach during the summer, spread by vacationing high school and college students who took it home.
A small coterie of fans, however, claim Carolina Beach as its birthplace. At least some documentary evidence can be found to support this. Broadcaster ” ‘Fessa” John Hook, in his 2005 book “Shagging in the Carolinas,” reproduces clippings from the Morning Star and other Wilmington newspapers, dated as early as 1932, describing “shag dance” contests. A large “shag” contest ended the 1935 season at Wrightsville Beach’s Lumina Pavilion. “Many requests have been made for a night featuring ‘shag’ music,” another 1935 clipping noted.
Lewis Philip Hall in his book “Land of the Golden River,” claimed to have introduced the shag at the second “Feast of the Pirates” festival in August 1928 in Wilmington. Hall had something of a reputation of not letting details stand in the way of a good story, but singer Kay Keever recalled doing the dance with Hall in 1930: “He invented the Shag, you know.”
“(E)veryone down at the beach learned the Shag,” recalled artist Claude Howell. “We’d go to someone’s porch at the beach, and someone would show the rest of us. Then on to the Lumina and invent some more (steps).”
Hall claimed that his shag morphed from a combination of the Charleston and the varsity rag. (A dance called the Collegiate Shag circulated for a while in the 1930s.) Whether his shag was the same as the shag we know now is unclear. By the summer of 1937, however, Shep Fields and his orchestra had recorded “The Shag — Fox Trot” for Bluebird Records and by August 1937, “The Shag” had reached the No. 18 position on Billboard magazine’s radio chart. Benny Goodman released sheet music for his version of the shag (“The New Dance Craze?) in 1939.
One of the acknowledged masters of shag dancing was Malcolm Ray “Chicken” Hicks (1925-2004), a Durham native who relocated to Carolina Beach in 1943. Hicks, along with his brother Bobby and a number of other young locals, was sneaking over to Seabreeze, the nearby black beach resort, to check out the latest music and steps in the “jump joints” there. By 1946, he was convincing Carolina Beach bar owners to slip black musicians’ records on their jukeboxes, and at Carolina Beach clubs like the Sugar Bowl, he was demonstrating new steps for what he called the “jump.”
Witnesses say people were shag dancing at the Ocean Plaza ballroom at Carolina Beach by the summer of 1948. Soon afterward, however, after a series of bar fights and a couple of well-publicized homicides, police cracked down on “jitterbug bums” and saw that most of Carolina Beach’s “jump joints,” including the Sugar Bowl, closed. By 1950, the shag had shifted almost entirely to the Myrtle Beach, S.C., area.
The dance spread back, however, before the decade was out. Wilmington College (forerunner of the University of North Carolina Wilmington) was a hotbed of shagging by the mid-’60s, playing host to dances with the Embers, Shirelles and other well-known “beach music” groups.
By 1984, the South Carolina state legislature had declared the shag the official S.C. state dance. (Former state Rep. David “Butch” Redwine of Brunswick County tried repeatedly to steer a similar measure through North Carolina’s General Assembly, but was thwarted by opposition from supporters of mountain clogging.) A 1989 motion picture, “Shag,” starring Bridget Fonda, Phoebe Cates and Tyrone Power Jr. and filmed largely at Myrtle Beach and Georgetown, S.C., enshrined the dance as a phenomenon of beach culture.
The 1980s saw the formation of S.O.S. (Society of Stranders), a shag preservation society at Myrtle Beach. (www.shagdance.com) A number of annual events and contests followed, including the Grand Nationals in Atlanta and the Spring Safari and the Fall Migration in Myrtle Beach.
Old-timers will say the mid-60s were the golden age of shag dancing (and some carpers will claim it’s the official dance of obnoxious, overweight, white Southern AARP members). The dance continues to undergo periodic revivals and rediscoveries, though.
Choreographers describe classic shag as a slotted swing dance (the couples tend to move forward and back in a set territory or “slot”). Considerable footwork and improvisation is involved. Wilmington dance instructor Babs McCullen-Welker describes the shag as a “rooster” dance in that the man generally takes the center of attention, showing off his best moves.
A Cape Fear Shag Club (www.capefearshagclub.net) meets at 7 p.m. on the second Friday of each month at Shanty’s Shag Club, 103 N. Lake Park Blvd., Carolina Beach [Map this].
Date posted: May 6, 2009