Here in the Lowcountry, there is a dance with an absolutely passionate following, and those who take to the dance, live the dance. It is the Shag. In 1984, with the stroke of Gov. Richard Riley’s pen, the Shag became the official dance of South Carolina. Its roots burrow deep beneath the Lowcountry. According to various accounts, The Shag, or Carolina Shag, evolved in the 1940s and 1950s as a mutation of dances such as the Jitterbug and the Lindy Hop. It also bridged the divide – sort of – between “white music” and “black music.”
For years, people had danced to swing and big band music. Even after the rhythm and blues music of black artists crept into dance halls, it remained taboo on most radio stations. Nevertheless, white teenagers gathered around coastal jukeboxes to embrace the new and exciting sound.Some swear that Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, is the birthplace of the Shag, while others argue that it was born in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Regardless of where the Shag drew its first breath, most people agree that teens felt the jerky movements of prior dances did not fit the relaxed beach life, so they created a smoother version. Referred to as “beach dancing,” it gained traction in the Carolinas.
“Most instructors today, if not all of them, use a sixcount basic, which is a triple, triple, rock step,” explained Ellen Taylor, a well-known personality in the Shagging world. “The Shag is a smoother version of the old Jitterbug. Instead of heavy footwork and busy upper body movements, it is a calmed down, softer, sexier style.”
Taylor lives in Edisto Beach, southwest of Charleston. A North Carolinian by birth, she grew up in Winnsboro, South Carolina, just above Columbia. As a teenager in the ’50s, during family outings to Myrtle Beach, she visited the Pavilion Club, where the Shag reigned.
“Once you dance the Shag, it becomes part of a lifestyle and you just have to,”Taylor said. Taylor honed her Shagging skills in North Myrtle Beach – at places such as Robert’s Pavilion, Sonny’s Pavilion and the Pad. In the late ’50s, when she and her husband moved to the Charleston area, she continued to follow her passion – dancing regularly at spots such as the Folly Beach pier.
“The people you meet and the friends that you make when you Shag become part of your family,” Taylor noted. Taylor has been inducted into the Shaggers Hall of Fame, recorded instructional DVDs and advised Julia Roberts and other actors about the Shag for the filming of “Something to Talk About.”
In recent years, she established the Ellen Taylor Foundation for Junior Shaggers and performed at the Grand National Dance Championship in Atlanta with “So You Think You Can Dance” winner Benji Schwimmer.
“The Shag is what I grew up with and is in my soul,” Taylor explained. “For me, to live is to Shag.”
Shagging is both a hobby and a passion for many Mount Pleasantarea residents. Disc jockey Jim Bowers, music director at 1340 AM The Boardwalk, started Shagging in the early 1980s, when a school friend invited him to a Shag class in Santee, South Carolina.
“I soon became drawn into the Shag and got caught up in the music,” Bowers recalled. ”The Shag is a joyful dance that the young and old at heart can enjoy without being judged.”
He has played beach music for Shag clubs from Pittsburgh to the Bahamas.
“The Shag is great since it has many ties to the Lowcountry and particularly the coast. People in Charleston grew up either Shagging on the Isle of Palms, Sullivan’s Island or Folly Beach,” he explained.
For years, groups such as the Charleston Shag Club, the Islanders Shag Club of Folly Beach and the Summerville Shaggers have preserved the dance and music they love. In 2010, Bowers co-founded the East Cooper Shag Club. Members meet two Fridays a month at Zeus Seafood Grille in Mount Pleasant.
“Sometimes we actually don’t have enough dance floor since our club has over 300 members,” Bowers noted. “We have the largest Shag club in Charleston.”
From late April to early September, the pier at Mount Pleasant’s Waterfront Park comes alive with the sounds of beach music. Shaggin’ on the Cooper, organized by the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission, began in 2009 soon after the pier opened.
“All ages are invited to let loose, breathe in the ocean breeze and dance the night away under the stars,” said Sarah Reynolds with the CCPRC.
Live music is performed at the foot of the pier on a Saturday night each month and at the town’s Uncle Sam Jam on July 4.
The Mount Pleasant Recreation Department offers periodic Shag lessons, as do the local Fred Astaire Dance Studio and Elite Dance International.
“The Shag is being carried all over the country, from the West Coast throughout the Central and Eastern states and becomes more popular each year,” Taylor noted. “Our dance, the Shag, is very secure.”