When we first saw the name 'Carolina Shag' back in the Spring of 1995, we thought it
hinted at something slightly off-colour... perhaps a term adopted by a State tourist
bureau somewhere just to lure snowbirds and others to the US southeast. At least to our northern eyes (and don't forget the British heritage up here!) it sure sounded intriguing!
Even now, we still have fun seeing the look on the faces of local non-dancers when we say
we're going to a 'weekend Shag party', mention a new 'Shag move' that we've learned, or
talk about a 'Shag workshop' we're planning, etc.
But, as we soon discovered from a new Internet buddy down in Georgia, the term applies to
a style of Swing Dancing that evolved during the 40's and 50's around Myrtle Beach, South
Carolina. Over subsequent decades, its popularity grew throughout the southeast and,
today, most towns in that region have at least one Shag Club -- all members of the
Association of Carolina Shag Clubs.
And as we have since witnessed during several subsequent visits, Shag is very much a way
of life for many people from Virginia Beach through to Florida -- not just a dance, but a
whole culture that surrounds it. Indeed, for many (now including us!), it's almost a
'religion'. And thanks to the host of wonderful people we've met throughout the Carolinas and Georgia, all of whom have patiently helped us learn their dance, we have enjoyed a
very intensive 'baptism' over the past couple of years.
Shag is a style of Swing that shares a 6-count basic pattern with East Cost Swing (ECS), but with a rearrangement of the footwork that makes it look and feel quite unique. Added
to this difference is the body styling that accompanies it. In contrast to ECS, Shag is notably smooth and laid-back, with all of the action occurring below the waist. And this brings up yet another characteristic: while Shag instructors throughout the region appear to teach a fairly standard basic pattern, seasoned Shaggers take pride in adopting individual styles. But despite the resulting variations, there are several constants: it's done on the balls of the feet, it uses small steps, and it looks 'cool' at all times.
Shag originated as a 'peacock dance', with the male doing all the 'showboating'.
Recently, however, it has become much more balanced, particularly with respect to two of its main characteristics.
But there's still plenty of room for the guy to do his thing too these days (eg. 'cool' spins, turns, footwork, etc.) between all of these pivots and mirrors. In all, Shag is fun to watch, and even more fun to do.
- The first is the 'pivot', where both partners come together into a closed position and do a complete 360 degree+ rotation. This move is unique in the way it is done by seasoned Shaggers... smooth, effortless, and executed within a very small piece of dance-floor real estate.
- The second is its use of 'mirror steps' in which the partners execute the same (frequently quick and complex) series of moves at the same time -- as though each is looking in a mirror -- most of it done while remaining in hand-to-hand contact. And the variety of mirror steps is endless! Better yet, many of these mirrors are done immediately before or after doing a pivot.
- Oh yes, and then there's the 'belly roll' -- a truly classic Shag move (and a great way to 'meet' your partner)!
Shag is danced to what is termed 'Beach Music' in the Carolinas. Basically, we're talking R&B, often the very same R&B used for West Coast Swing (WCS). However, many Shaggers enjoy doing it to a variety of music, ranging from gospel to some of the more relaxed music from the big-band era (known in the Carolinas as 'smoothies').
Confined to the US Southeast for decades, the Shag has finally scaled the Appalachians. Shag lessons have been available in Detroit for over a year now [remember, this was written early in 1997]. We understand it is just starting to be taught in Chicago. As well, Shag has now gone international! Following two series of Shag workshops through the London Swing Dance Club [since disbanded] over the past half year, even London Ontario now has it's Shaggers -- Canada's first! (More recently, we were asked to run a beginners Shag workshop for the Toronto Swing Dance Society in April/97, and the reception was very positive. We've been invited back to do another in May.)
One of the more attractive aspects of the Carolina Shag for all of these northern cities where WCS is already popular is that, while these dances use the same music, they also share much of the same dance-floor 'attitude'. Indeed, it is not uncommon to see someone comfortable with both forms of Swing switching back and forth during a song, or at least borrowing from one to enhance the other. And through such major events as the Grand Nationals in Atlanta, where the best US Shaggers and WCS dancers meet to compete and play, this trend is widespread and growing.
It doesn't hurt either that, while WCS highlights the follower, Shag highlights the
leader. As such, they are very complimentary, and form a great partnership!!