Star News report(May 2009)

What is shag dancing?

Ben Steelman

    Shag dancing (also known as shagging or shag), in a Coastal Carolina context, has nothing to do with Austin Powers or British slang. (Although, as one old-timer told dance instructor Kurt Lichtmann, "Shag is a warm night with a cold beer and a hot date.") Instead, it's a distinctive dance style long associated with the Cape Fear coast and the South Carolina Grand Strand.

    Conventional histories say that shag originated sometime in the mid-1930s in Atlantic Beach, S.C., as a spin-off of a dance called the Big Apple. It supposedly took off when it hit Myrtle Beach during the summer, spread by vacationing high school and college students who took it home.

A small coterie of fans, however, claim Carolina Beach as its birthplace. At least some documentary evidence can be found to support this. Broadcaster " 'Fessa" John Hook, in his 2005 book "Shagging in the Carolinas," reproduces clippings from the Morning Star and other Wilmington newspapers, dated as early as 1932, describing "shag dance" contests. A large "shag" contest ended the 1935 season at Wrightsville Beach's Lumina Pavilion. "Many requests have been made for a night featuring 'shag' music," another 1935 clipping noted.

    Lewis Philip Hall in his book "Land of the Golden River," claimed to have introduced the shag at the second "Feast of the Pirates" festival in August 1928 in Wilmington. Hall had something of a reputation of not letting details stand in the way of a good story, but singer Kay Keever recalled doing the dance with Hall in 1930: "He invented the Shag, you know." "Everyone down at the beach learned the Shag," recalled artist Claude Howell. "We'd go to someone's porch at the beach, and someone would show the rest of us. Then on to the Lumina and invent some more (steps)." Hall claimed that his shag morphed from a combination of the Charleston and the varsity rag. (A dance called the Collegiate Shag circulated for a while in the 1930s.) Whether his shag was the same as the shag we know now is unclear. By the summer of 1937, however, Shep Fields and his orchestra had recorded "The Shag - Fox Trot" for Bluebird Records and by August 1937, "The Shag" had reached the No. 18 position on Billboard magazine's radio chart. Benny Goodman released sheet music for his version of the shag ("The New Dance Craze?) in 1939.

    One of the acknowledged masters of shag dancing was Malcolm Ray "Chicken" Hicks (1925-2004), a Durham native who relocated to Carolina Beach in 1943. Hicks, along with his brother Bobby and a number of other young locals, was sneaking over to Seabreeze, the nearby black beach resort, to check out the latest music and steps in the "jump joints" there. By 1946, he was convincing Carolina Beach bar owners to slip black musicians' records on their jukeboxes, and at Carolina Beach clubs like the Sugar Bowl, he was demonstrating new steps for what he called the "jump." Witnesses say people were shag dancing at the Ocean Plaza ballroom at Carolina Beach by the summer of 1948. Soon afterward, however, after a series of bar fights and a couple of well-publicized homicides, police cracked down on "jitterbug bums" and saw that most of Carolina Beach's "jump joints," including the Sugar Bowl, closed. By 1950, the shag had shifted almost entirely to the Myrtle Beach, S.C., area.

    The dance spread back, however, before the decade was out. Wilmington College (forerunner of the University of North Carolina Wilmington) was a hotbed of shagging by the mid-'60s, playing host to dances with the Embers, Shirelles and other well-known "beach music" groups.

By 1984, the South Carolina state legislature had declared the shag the official S.C. state dance. (Former state Rep. David "Butch" Redwine of Brunswick County tried repeatedly to steer a similar measure through North Carolina's General Assembly, but was thwarted by opposition from supporters of mountain clogging.) A 1989 motion picture, "Shag," starring Bridget Fonda, Phoebe Cates and Tyrone Power Jr. and filmed largely at Myrtle Beach and Georgetown, S.C., enshrined the dance as a phenomenon of beach culture.

    The 1980s saw the formation of S.O.S. (Society of Stranders), a shag preservation society at Myrtle Beach. ( A number of annual events and contests followed, including the Grand Nationals in Atlanta and the Spring Safari and the Fall Migration in Myrtle Beach. Old-timers will say the mid-60s were the golden age of shag dancing (and some carpers will claim it's the official dance of obnoxious, overweight, white Southern AARP members). The dance continues to undergo periodic revivals and rediscoveries, though. Choreographers describe classic shag as a slotted swing dance (the couples tend to move forward and back in a set territory or "slot"). Considerable footwork and improvisation is involved. Wilmington dance instructor Babs McCullen-Welker describes the shag as a "rooster" dance in that the man generally takes the center of attention, showing off his best moves.

Shagging on the Island--A history

Article from the Island Gazette
Carolina Beach, 2007
By: Dana Starks
Staff Writer

Literally shag is a slotted swing dance that shares many moves with the jitterbug and the east coast swing. With roots in the jitterbug and the Lindy Hop Swing, Shag is smooth dance which places importance on footwork rather than elaborate turns. It consists of two triple steps and a rock ball change.

Many Carolina Beach locals claim that Shag dancing found its birth right here on their shores, while Myrtle Beach also stakes a claim to its origins. We may never know the exact location of the shag’s beginnings, but it is certain that local legend Chicken Hicks, who lived on the Island from his late teenage years in the 1930s until he died in 2004, can be credited as the early cool papa of shag.

According to shag historian and author Bo Bryan, “Chicken had a genuine glamour…he was six foot three, pretty and plum wild.” Chicken took those wild good looks across the invisible line just north of Carolina Beach to Sea Breeze which was known as the “colored beach” in the racially segregated times of the late thirties. There Chicken was allowed to watch from the balconies of the black dance halls. Chicken liked what he saw and brought the slow sexy moves back to the south end of town and introduced them the white college kids who were on the Island for summer vacation. He and his cohorts took the jitterbug and slowed it down to incorporate slower, sexier moves.

Hicks also took a love for the R & B rhythms from the Sea Breeze dance halls. He began convincing Juke box distributors from Wilmington to put acts like the Dominos, the Papas, and the Clovers on the juke box right next to Benny Goodman and Perry Cuomo in the small clubs of Carolina Beach. This was unheard of up to this point. In a very segregated south, whites and blacks were coexisting on a juke box. Much to their parents disdain, the kids loved it and beach music was born. Bryan suspects the term “Beach Music” originated right here on the Island, because the kids couldn’t get it anywhere else. After their summer vacations, they returned home to the old standard sounds and longed for the slow R & B rhythms that they associated with a fun summer on the shores and open air dances of Carolina Beach. Chicken had started a revolution of sorts.

During the 1940s and 50s shag became the signature dance of the rebels of the carolina beaches. At that time the Ocean Ballroom right on the Carolina Beach boardwalk was the place to be. Dancers developed signature moves as they tried to impress members of the opposite sex. By the late fifties, the teenage rebels hung up their pegged pants, donned Bermuda shorts, and shag went mainstream. It was no longer exclusive to the juke joints and open air dances at the beach. After reaching its peak of popularity in the sixties, public interest in shag waned in the seventies only to flourish again in the south in the 80s and 90s. Today it is an acclaimed aspect of Southern culture. “Perhaps,” Bryan states, Shag was “reborn around the romance of the endless summer and what we remember as simpler days.”