Band stands on the Grand Strand

Story by Lois Carol Wheatley

Among the vast array of nightclubs in Myrtle Beach you should be able to find a place to do the watusi, the mashed potato, the Macarena, the boogaloo, the limbo, the bunny hop or the hokey pokey. But be forewarned that Myrtle Beach calls itself The Home of Shag, and you need to start practicing right now if you're planning a trip to the beach and want to participate in a 70-year-long local dance tradition that has thrived almost exclusively in the Carolinas.

Depending on your natural abilities you might be able to master the basic step with a couple weeks' practice, which all by itself is kind of tricky. At the shag clubs concentrated mostly in North Myrtle Beach you'll see the innovations and embellishments that over the years have kept this dance alive, and you'll be inspired to practice some more before you go back. Over time you might master the boogie walk, the belly roll, the fly-back and the 360-degree pivot.

Shag first took to the dance floor in the 1930s -- or some earlier version of it took root at the old pavilion on Myrtle Beach's boardwalk -- and it was done to what was called race music during the Jim Crow era. Teenagers actually borrowed the music and the moves from black nightclubs, and while they were smuggling these into the white community they were also pretty much sneaking out of their houses before their parents got wise.

"Shag" is a term with sexual connotations, certainly part of its forbidden mystique, and the dance can be as suggestive (or not) as you make it. The basic step is done in a six- or eight-count rhythm in four/four time, stepping forward, stepping backward, and a rocking step, which in Myrtle Beach comes off as an easy-going, laidback kind of shuffle. Allegedly it originated with swing dancing during the Big Band Era—the breakaway, the hop and the Lindy—and later moved on to the realm of jazz and the jitterbug.

The great American melting pot

In the late '30s and early '40s white teenage boys "jumped the Jim Crow rope" to hear the R&B music and watch the dancing from a balcony in a black nightclub called The Whispering Pines. Some of them had connections with the guy who supplied records in the jukeboxes in Myrtle Beach and they persuaded him to bring in the so-called race music. The kids loved it and the guys who knew the footwork were popular dance partners, even those who were not particularly appealing in any other way. The shag represented an opportunity for a regular guy to get a dance with a prom queen.

This was a Southern Baptist community, however, and the so-called fast dancing with its undulating, sultry movements faced some pretty stiff opposition. Anti-shag sentiments stem from roots that go way back in American history.

West European and primitive African dance styles came together aboard slave ships in transit across the ocean, as sailors brought up slaves from the hold to allow them some exercise on deck. Their styles continued to evolve together over the centuries, just as music also was adapted along the same intercultural lines. It is now widely acknowledged that rock 'n roll sprang from deep African roots, and the shaggers' music was another forerunner of rock, another link in that chain. They didn't know it at the beginning, but the music they danced to represented a bridge or continuum between Leadbelly and Blind Lemon Jefferson to Benny Goodman and Count Basie.

An ancient African tradition was the circle dance, and that showed up at Sam's Big Apple Club in Columbia, where the Big Apple was performed in circles with undulating shoulders and waving arms. But this was the wrong era to be drawing comparisons between beach resort ballrooms and African sacred rituals performed to the heavy rhythm of a bass drum.

Dancers of European descent were less than comfortable with the crouching position of the jitterburg, another element of the African style, and maintained the erect posture seen in Irish step dancing. Those of the Southern persuasion didn't go in for the frenzied aspect either, and they slowed the tempo considerably.

Black dancers continued to exert influence, even after their moves had already migrated to white dance floors. "Shorty" George Snowden broke away from his partner at the Crystal Club in Manhattan, and improvised some wild new moves on the spot. To this day shaggers call that "the shorty george."

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