As long as legs have been tapering down into feet, humans have been using dancing as a courtship ritual. Cavemen danced. They’d impress their women by beating t-rex thighbones on a rock to get a rhythm. If they dug that particular groove, they’d put a grunt to it, maybe bust a move, then finger-paint foot positions on the cave wall for later. Since Jurassic times we boys have been conniving countless ways to get next to a girl.
Rain dance, fire dance, square dance, fertility dance, hat dance, pole dance, break dance jitterbug, charleston, swing, Lindy hop, black bottom, big apple, boogie woogie, continental, samba, calypso, ballet, buck dance, boogaloo, bump, belly, hokey pokey, tap, twist, tango, two-step, scratch, wobble, locomotion, funky chicken, waltz, watusi, manhattan, hustle, disco, lambada, lap dance, mash potato, minuet and macarena… next week they’ll be two more.
Most dance fads lasted about as long as the flavor in your bubble gum. A few hung on like taffy on a hot sidewalk… ballroom, ballet, the shag. So what’s the shag? Simple definition, it’s a southern dance with basic repeatable steps done to a specific rhythm. Lots of balding braggarts claim they know, but truth is probably no one knows exactly where and how it evolved. Ask any old timer and he’ll cop some fresh fiction about what exact day it started in Myrtle Beach, Ocean Drive, Atlantic Beach, Charlie’s Place or Carolina Beach. And whether blacks or whites started it. So let’s chill on that subject. Doesn’t matter. It was fun then and it’s still fun. And yes, we do think it evolved here. We think it mutated from lindy, big apple, swing, jitterbug to what dance legend Billy Jeffers described as “the lazy man’s jitterbug”.
Maybe that’s what happened. Maybe all the southern jitterbugs got rheumatiz, got down in the back and started dancing halftime. Maybe the dance floors got too crowded for the violence of the jitterbug. They tired of throwing their dance partners and started shuffling in place. Whatever it was, we trimmed our pompadours and danced ourselves into shaggers. And whenever it happened, it was way before fros, fanny tattoos, bellbottoms, baggy pants, spandex, acid rock, acid rain, ram, rom and pierced tongues.
• 1932 Wilmington Star: “A Shag dance contest will be held at Wrightsville Beach”
• 1937 Arthur Murray film clip does a version of the belly roll and has the caption. “Princess Brinda went to learn the big Apple and stayed to do the Shag.”
• 1938 Dance instruction magazine demos the shag step.
• 1939 Amos Milburn song “Doug the Jitterbug” refers to the Shag on his 12th line. “But boy he can shag.”
So yes…the shag has been around a while. Why’s it important? It’s not unless you believe what jitterbug champion Nicky Sotteriou told me when I was 10. “Being polite and being able to handle yourself in a crowd sets you apart. Being able to dance says something good about you.”
Check into SOS in the Spring, Summer and Fall and you’ll see 30,000 sockless, old-timers in 60s styles and 50s attitudes, doing the same steps, listening to the same music and living to laugh another day. Life is short, dance all you can.
Dino Thompson 2011