WHAT IS CAROLINA SHAG?

SHAGGING ON THE BOULEVARD (Alabama)

(Excerpt from “50 Years of Shagging” by Lance Benishek and Cathy Rudenick as printed in Jan/Feb 1993 issue of Dancing USA): “Life would have been dull in the summers in the late 1930s for teenagers in the South if it had not been for the seven miles of beach along the northern Atlantic Ocean coastline of South Carolina.  The long stretch of beach, called the Strand, was dotted with pavilions where the young people partied at night all summer long to the sound of the out door juke boxes.

(Excerpt from “THE RETURN OF THE SHAG,” an article by Robert P. Crease published in September 1988):  “That especially American confluence of black music and white kids, usually at hangouts frowned upon by adults, gave birth to the shag in the 1940s on the Grand Strand, the fifty-five-mile crescent-shaped beach running north from Georgetown, above Charleston, to the North Carolina border. 

The Strand was the summer habitat of large numbers of college kids, from all social levels in North and South Carolina, who had become addicted to the free and unruly character of beach life.  Away from the supervision of parents or campus authorities, these college kids tended, of course, to act like irresponsible bums – and were treated as such both by locals and by servicemen on leave from the many military bases in the area.  The college kids learned to make a virtue of necessity by accepting this community rejection and cultivating an aloof, “cool” demeanor.  Cool meant, first, a look:  for the boys, long, slicked-back, peroxide hair with ducktail, V-necked sweater with no shirt underneath, custom-tailored baggy pants; for the girls, short shorts.  Cool footgear consisted of simply Weejuns or moccasins; socks were uncool.  (Note: Many of today’s sophisticated patrons of shag, male and female, wear soft-soled, flexible, custom-made dance shoes.)  But cool also meant following a certain routine.  Days were spent on the beach.  Shortly after dusk the beach bums walked along the boardwalk to the numerous open-air pavilions that were the social centers of all the communities along the Grand Strand.  Each had a refreshment stand, an arcade, and most important, a wooden dance floor with a Wurlitzer jukebox.  There the beach bums hung out until somebody came along who could afford to set the machine whirring: a nickel bought one song, a quarter bought five.

More than 50 years ago, one of them, Billy Jeffers, asked Dot Bradford to “fast dance” with him on the beach called Ocean Drive, or North Myrtle Beach.  Although it was called fast dancing, the name is misleading.  They called it fast dancing to distinguish it from such slow dances as the two-step foxtrot. 

What they called the fast dance was actually, in Jeffers’ words, “a slowed-down, smoothed-out jitterbug,” now called the Carolina shag.  It was a dance fashioned to suit the “dirty” music you couldn’t get on the radio but could hear at the beach – rhythm and blues “beach music.”  Jeffers describes it as having a push beat.  They would also dance to the beat of the “sweet” bands, like Les Brown.

“THE RETURN OF THE SHAG” says that:  “The shag is a slow, easy dance that developed in the late 1940s and early 1950s to early rhythm-and-blues music.”

According to Jeffers, the Carolina Shag is not related to the other shags that came out of the 1930s and ‘40s.  In fact, Jeffers says he never did the shag.  It was ‘fast dancing’ until the late 1940s when some of the people at the beach started calling it ‘shag.’ 

John “Bubber” Snow, a South Carolina State Representative and shagger in the ‘40s believes the dance acquired the name shag in the late ‘40s or early ‘50s.  “Actually,” he says, “it was initially called the ‘dirty shag’.”  According to Snow, the word shag comes from England, and refers to the horizontal, as opposed to vertical, movement of the dance.

“THE RETURN OF THE SHAG”:  “Nobody started out to invent a new dance,” said Billy Jeffers, who first came to the Strand in the late 1930s and stayed through the mid-1940s. 

Until the end of the war white teenagers heard only swing music and danced only the Lindy hop, better known as the jitterbug – a vigorous, jumpy dance that had swept the country in the 1930s.  The cooler beach bums preferred hot black bands, and the steps they danced to them were smoother and less frantic

“We just didn’t think all those jerky jitterbug movements fit in with what life was like at the beach.  So we began to dance the way we talked to the girls – nice and easy, and real laid back.”  Robert’s Pavilion and the other open-air pavilions with race music on their jukeboxes were the perfect environment for a group of white kids who were cocky and creative enough to invent their own forms of expression and competitive enough to goad one another on.  The beach bums would meet nightly to improvise new steps and inspire one another, and to showcase what they did.  A new dance had been born.  It didn’t have a name, and was referred to as “beach dancing,” “fas’ dancing,” and “dirty shag.”  This last after an old Lindy step that vaguely resembled another Carolinian dance, the Charleston.  “Shag” eventually stuck.”

John Harper states in THE COAST Beach Beat, May 12, 1996 that, “The shag, for the uninitiated, is a deceptively complex six or eight rhythm in a 4/4 time.  To the untrained eye, it appears to be a slowed-down jitterbug.”

Jeffers describes the shag as a cross between the Lindy Hop and jitterbug.  This is particularly true of its count patterns.  Most of the steps use a six-count beat while the turning basic takes eight counts.  Unlike West Coast Swing (also a derivative of Lindy Hop and jitterbug) in which the woman walks forward in place of the rock step, the rock step characteristic of jitterbug has survived in the Carolina Shag.  However, there are several differences between the classic Lindy Hop and jitterbug, and the shag.

For one thing, the styling is different.  In shagging, the couple’s upper bodies and arms are stable and fluid, while the footwork is fast and intricate, the knees and ankles acting like shock absorbers. 

Originally, the shag was male-oriented.  The woman’s role was to make the man look good.  For example, the man might lead his partner into a free spin but take a couple of spins himself before catching his partner.  Jeffers thinks this style is boring and technical because “the girl does time-steps and that’s it.”  He prefers the way they do it at the beach today where the girl does her own thing and it works out fine because they “meet at the turn.”

“Keep your feet very close to the ground,” says Bradford, “even on the rock step.”  The partners must pull against each other to maintain a constant tension.  The music is different, too – slower, usually with a driving beat.  One of the classic shag songs is Sixty-Minute Man. (Released in 1951 by a black group called the Dominoes.) 

“THE RETURN OF THE SHAG”:  “Beach jukeboxes were stocked with what the trade called “race music” – that is, records made by black musicians and marketed to a black audience.  In 1949, Billboard magazine reclassified “race music” on its charts as “rhythm and blues.”

One avid race-music fan was Jo-Jo Putnam, a white South Carolina drummer who first landed on the Strand in 1947 at the age of thirteen.  “We loved race music, but you couldn’t find it on the radio.  The only place we heard race music was at the beach.” 

Putman never forgot the moment he first saw Billy Jeffers dancing at Robert’s Pavilion in Ocean Drive Beach (now called North Myrtle Beach).  “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Putman said.  “A whole realm of self-expression opened up to me.  I thought I’d just been granted the opportunity to participate in a new art form.  I almost broke down and wept.”

HERITAGE OF SHAG

(From March/April 1995 issue of Dancing USA).  The Carolina Shag heritage can be tracked like a game of dominoes back in time to the jitterbug, and the jitterbug back to the Big and Little Apples, and the Apple dances back to the old shag and Charleston, according to Lance Benishek, dance historian for the American Cultural Arts Society. 

“One of the most popular Swing Era dances, the shag was an energetic partner dance that came out of the high school and college campuses of the Southeastern U.S.  It was done in three basic rhythms – single, double, and triple.” 

Hops were an initial basic component, with couples in closed dance positions with clasped hands held high. 

During the 1993 SOS Spring Safari in Myrtle Beach, SC, Lance and his American Dance Ensemble (along with eight living legends who, in 1937, introduced the Big Apple to the nation), were invited to perform at beach clubs and presented at the South Carolina House of Representatives.  At that Spring Safari, Lance and his troupe performed the grandparents of the early shag:  Charleston, Big Apple, Little Apple, and old style shags.  Shaggers watched, seeing that was where their Carolina Shag came from.

As House Representative John “Bubber” J. Snow, Jr., wrote in a personal letter to Lance, “Our state dance, the Carolina Shag, was the offspring of the Little Apple which came from the Lindy Hop of the 20’s.  As you know, the Big Apple and Little Apple originated here in Columbia during the summer and fall of 1936, during this era of jazz dancing.”

“The early settlers who arrived in Charles Town in 1670 made dancing a part of their social activities.  The success of agricultural crops like indigo, rice and cotton provided plantation homes, which became a focal point of social life.  Dancing became a part of this lifestyle and we can boast in this state by saying dancing is indigenous to South Carolina.” 

Snow continues to say, “We also make a legitimate claim to the Charleston.  This dance evolved from New Orleans to Savannah and on to Charleston.  We claim it, for it was named for the Holy City.” 

On a trip to New York, Bubber Snow attended a dance of the New York Swing Society where he was asked to demonstrate the intricacies of the shag.  Snow, a 40’s shagger, was the major instigator for getting shag recognized as the official state dance of South Carolina in 1984.  He also introduced legislation creating a registered shag logo and personalized shag license plates. 

“Don’t ever get confused about our state dance,“ once quoted Bubber.  “It was born in Harlem in 1926, discovered by whites in Columbia in 1936, shaped in 1946, and perfected in 1956 at Ocean Drive.”  There are plenty of ‘living legends’ of shag.  Any shagger from the ‘50’s has a story to tell of the guys and girls they knew back then, and the ‘best of the best’ dancers.  

TIME CAPSULE

(By Fleur Paysour, from “Dancing on the Edge” magazine, Vol. 1 #1, Sep/Oct 1989.  Reprinted in March/April 1995 issue of Dancing USA.)

 Shag has a birth certificate.  And Bubba “Emzie” Caldwell had a part of that birthing, like many others.  Bubba’s moves were said to be “married bits of the jitterbug to elements of tap and buck (tap) dancing.”  Bubba was said to be so hot, he’d dance with two at a time. 

When the big bands were going through Greensboro, NC, in the late 1930’s, the racial prejudices of the time had black and whites dancing in separate clubs.  According to Bubba’s nephew, Jimmy Caldwell, white dancers started going to the black clubs, and carloads would go to Bubba’s house to let loose and dance.  They’d bring their own food and drink, and party all night long.  They wanted to learn from the ‘master’—they wanted, by osmosis, to gain bits of his coordination, grace, speed and flexibility. 

Bubba started dancing as a kid and was making money at it on Greensboro street corners before he was 10.  When Count Basie played the local clubs, Bubba and his partner, Tena, were part of the floorshow.  Their job was to match the Count’s music; slow, medium or fast.

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