Twenty-four states do their Promenades, Do-Si-Dos and Allemande Lefts with pride during their official state dance, the square dance. Wisconsinites claim the polka. Out in California it’s the West Coast Swing while the bayou country of Louisiana rocks with the Cajun Jig. North Carolina and Kentucky hit the dance floor for clogging while in Hawaii, of course, the official dance is the hula.
The rest of the states sit on the sidelines like the shy boys at the senior prom. But not South Carolina. We have a quick, fun official dance called the Shag. Tracing its origins to our sandy shores in general and Myrtle Beach in particular, the Shag screams “beach party” so loudly you can almost hear lifeguards whistle and smell Coppertone in the air.
The Shag, or Carolina Shag as some call it, is believed to have its roots with African Americans as early as the 1920s. By the ‘30s and ‘40s, both Black and white dancers were doing the Shag to rhythm and blues music that slowed the more frantic pace of its predecessor, the Carolina Jitterbug. The ‘50s and ‘60s saw setbacks to the Shag’s popularity. Hurricane Hazel in 1954 demolished many of the old dance pavilions near the beaches and the dominance of rock and roll in the ‘60s eclipsed the music that set the beat for the Shag’s steps.
The 1970s saw a resurgence of interest in the dance that continues to grow today. In fact, a whole new musical genre called beach music emerged to revive the Shag to a popularity it hasn’t known for decades. But it took a lifetime of dancing and the legislative determination of a Mount Pleasant man called Bubber to carry the Shag to Columbia and the State House of Representatives and make it our state’s official dance.
Bubber’s given name is John J. Snow, III, but no one ever called him that, leastwise not when he was on the dance floor, where you can still often find him. Those opportunities don’t present themselves as frequently these days as he is now 94, but his memory’s sharp, his voice is strong and when we caught up with him he was out in his yard tending to his garden. Working with plants has been another lifelong passion for Snow, who earned a degree in agronomy from Clemson and worked as a tobacco farmer.
Snow acquired his love of dancing from his father, who taught him the Charleston. His education in dance and introduction to what would become the Shag began in the pavilions that once attracted young people to Myrtle Beach, Pawleys Island and the Isle of Palms. “Some of the guys I knew,” he said, “would drive up to New York City to visit the hot dance clubs in Harlem. They’d come back down to South Carolina with a lot of new moves and quite a few of those moves became a part of a new dance we called the Shag.”
He continued, “Whenever I felt like dancing, I always had an instant partner – my twin sister! We and all our friends would dance the summers away at the clubs and pavilions from Myrtle Beach right down the coast to the Isle of Palms. Mostly we danced the Shag, but I would gladly dance to any music that has a great beat. I’ve even served as Grand Marshal of the big spring and fall dance gatherings at North Myrtle Beach.”
Eventually the lure of politics attracted Snow, just as it had his father. He was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives from a district that then included Williamsburg and Georgetown counties. All told, Snow served in the House for 25 years.
Snow had a big idea he’d formulated over the years and in 1984 he introduced Bill 3591, which made the Shag the official state dance of South Carolina. Another legislator might have rested on his laurels after accomplishing that feat, but Snow yearned to make one more thing official in South Carolina. That was “beach music,” that amalgam of rhythm and blues and pop with a soupcon of rock and roll that propels shaggers onto dance floors up and down our coast. He spearheaded the move and in 2001 the state legislature passed a bill making beach music the official popular music of the state.
“I can’t tell you exactly what beach music is,” Snow confessed, “and I doubt that anyone else can either. But I guarantee you’ll know it when you hear it – and it’ll make you want to get up and onto the nearest dance floor to do the Shag!”
By Bill Farley