The Shag, South Carolina’s official dance
North Myrtle Beach is known as the birthplace of The Shag, a dance that is similar to a six-count swing-step and the official dance of South Carolina, and Kelly and I decided it was time to learn this cultural phenomenon that focuses on patterned footwork. The first step (no pun intended) was to find someone to teach us. Luckily, Fat Harold’s Beach Club in North Myrtle Beach offers free Shag lessons every Tuesday from 7:00pm to 8:30pm! They also offer more advanced lessons on Mondays for $10 a person.
We arrived at Fat Harold’s a little after 7:00pm and paused for a moment in the parking lot to listen to a narration of the history of the Shag being broadcast from the building. Once inside we realized the voice outside was the dance instructor, Jeppy McDowell, introducing the story on the dance floor! We quickly found a seat at the bar and listened. He explained that the Shag was primarily born because of the location of Atlantic Beach to North Myrtle Beach on the East Coast. Atlantic Beach, nicknamed The Black Pearl, was formed by Gullah/Geechee people, the descendants of slaves. In the 1930’s, black women and men opened restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs in Atlantic Beach and it became a go-to vacation destination for blacks during the time of racial segregation. The man who owned the jukeboxes along the East Coast purchased records for the Atlantic Beach jukeboxes with music from Joe Brown, Billy Wright, Jackie Wilson, and Otis Redding while his other jukeboxes were filled with music from Patti Page, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Dean Martin, and Perry Como. Jeppy went on to explain that either this businessman was a genius or just tight with his money, and when he changed out the records he would use Atlantic Beach’s records as “fill-ins” for the other jukeboxes along the beach instead of purchasing all new music each time. This exposed beach-goers to a new kind of rock/R&B/pop music, a.k.a. beach music, which they fell in love with.
Jeppy continued his story about how a job as a life guard was the best job to have in the 50’s and 60’s in Myrtle Beach. And it was important for those boy lifeguards to find a girl vacationing in one of the beach houses each week who could bring them snacks made by a mother who knew how to cook. The easiest way to meet a girl was to dance with her. However the swing dance was such a fast, side-to-side motion that it was hard to catch your breath and have a conversation to meet a girl. Plus those summer nights were H.O.T. The Shag dance began to form. It is slower than the swing and focuses on patterned footwork, with most of the dancing motion happening below the knees. This makes the dancers stay in almost the same place on the dance floor the entire time and it is a back-and-forth motion where the guy and girl can be face-to-face and hold a conversation.
Once we knew how and why the dance began, Jeppy called out for his dance partner, Nikki, to meet him on the dance floor. She came out from behind the bar and beach music spilled out of the speakers (something similar to Billy Ward and the Dominos’ “Sixty Minute Man”). They danced in a fluid motion, back and forth, each holding one hand of the other. It was impressive to see them slide effortlessly over the dance floor, mimicking each other’s moves and twirling around each other at times. After their dance, the audience was invited to join them on the dance floor, men on one side, women on the other, facing each other (there were about forty of us!), in lines of five. They began teaching us the basic Shag dance. Jeppy showed the men their step and Nikki showed us the female’s step. Since it is a six-count dance, they started by demonstrating the “five-six” steps. Once we mastered those, they showed us the “three-and-four-and” steps. The instructor let us break around 8:00pm which most of us took advantage of by ordering a drink at the bar to cool down. After about 20 minutes we gathered back on the dance floor and they taught us the last steps: the “one-and-two-and” steps. Each step is made on an alternate foot, so you are constantly swaying back-and-forth, yet you make the steps forward and backwards in order to remain almost in the same spot. It was very repetitive. However there were all kinds of dance levels on the floor – some people picked it up quickly and others still struggled after the hour and a half lesson.
As the lessons wore on people filled in the bar area (young and old, but mostly Baby Boomers), waiting for the dance floor to open. Once we learned the entire dance, they asked the women to find a man to partner with. If you did not bring a partner, there were people in the audience who willingly jumped in. The instructor explained that this was a dance club, and people came here to dance. He encouraged everyone to grab different partners every time they danced to learn a new Shag step (once you learn to Shag you quickly learn there are many variations out there), become a better dancer, and meet new people. Another beach tune played and all skill levels came onto the floor to Shag.
If you find yourself free on a Tuesday night, I encourage you to learn the Shag – a great piece of history and culture of this area as well as a fun activity for an evening on the beach. “One-and-two…three-and-four…five-six!”
View the Shag dance and a short tutorial (starting at 2:09)
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