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Doing the Shag
By Jackie R. Broach
After two knee replacements and a serious back operation, Ed Gilmer can’t do everything he used to.
But age and time haven’t taken one of his favorite activities from him. He can still dance the Carolina shag, and he does so at every opportunity.
“I can still keep time and grin, and have a real good time,” said Gilmer, 71, of Rose Run.
He might not dance all night anymore, but as long as he can get on the floor two or three times with a really good partner, he’s a happy man and perfectly content to spend the rest of his time watching what moves others come up with.
The state dance of both Carolinas, the shag is a six-count partner dance in which the hips and upper body barely move. Instead, it’s all about the legs as the dancers execute complicated steps, kicks and showy spins. The lead comes up with the moves and the partner mirrors them.
“It’s a connection dance, sort of like a slow version of the jitterbug or the swing,” said Deborah Mangan of DeBordieu. “But it’s a little more refined. There’s no bouncing or strutting in the shag.”
Mangan and her husband, Jack, started shagging more than a decade ago and have been shag aficionados ever since. They owe a lot to the dance.
“We made all our friends through shagging,” Deborah said. The couple didn’t know a soul in the area when they moved here in the 1990s. At that point, they’d never even heard of the shag, but decided it would be fun to learn.
“It’s a very social dance,” Deborah said. “There’s a great community of people who do this.”
But that’s only one reason the shag has remained so popular since its birth some 75 years ago.
“It’s just so much fun,” said Jessamine Griffin, 69, a Pawleys Island resident who learned to shag as an eighth-grader in Sumter. Back then, any self-respecting teen wanted to be up to date on all the latest dance steps.
“Of course, you did anything to go to the beach, to either Pawleys Pavilion or The Pad on Ocean Drive,” she said.
The last of four Pavilions has been gone for more than 40 years, but shaggers still talk about it with reverence and convene once a year on the former site at the North Causeway for the Pawleys Pavilion Reunion.
The reunion will be back Mother’s Day weekend after a two-year hiatus and while Griffin said the event has gotten too crowded for her, Gilmer said he will be among the shaggers filling the dance floor.
“There are just too many people I
don’t see if I don’t go,” he said. “I try not to miss it. We’re already losing some [who used to dance at the Pavilion] who won’t ever be here again.”
In the weeks leading up to the reunion, the Mangans have been giving free lessons at Lands End in Georgetown in hopes of luring more shaggers to the event. The last free lesson is tonight at 6:30 p.m.
A single lesson is enough to learn the basic steps of the dance, Deborah said. But to shag with any finesse takes more time and more practice. She recommends taking at least two sets of four lessons to really grasp the basic moves.
“It’s like any other dance; if you want to do it well, you need to take lessons and practice,” Mangan said.
Judy Duke, a shag instructor and member of the Shaggers Hall of Fame in North Myrtle Beach, compared learning to shag to learning golf or tennis.
“You can’t learn to play in one hour, but you can be as good as you want to be,” she said. “If you want to be the national champion, you’ve got to work on it for hours and hours, but for most people, it’s a date night for couples or a form of exercise.”
Most of the students at a class she teaches at the VFW in Murrells Inlet on Tuesday nights come back to dance there on Friday and Saturday nights, she said.
The VFW is one of too few places left where shaggers can get together, Gilmer said. Lands End is another. Shaggers gather there on Thursday nights and sometimes at Creek Ratz in Murrells Inlet on Sundays.
When Gilmer was growing up, he and his peers never took formal lessons, he said, and they didn’t need them.
“Most of the teaching today is on a number system, starting with the left foot or the right foot. They’re so focused on getting their count correct” that the spontaneity of the dance is missing, he said.
“For the real dancers, it doesn’t matter [what foot they start with], it’s going to come out every time. They’re doing steps you may have never seen before, but they’ll be together.”
He recalled watching a friend dance and overhearing a woman ask the man’s wife about his crazy moves. She wanted to know how the wife was able to anticipate what he was going to do next. The wife said she couldn’t anticipate it. “He doesn’t even know what he’s going to do next,” she told the woman.
It’s not necessary to have the steps mapped out, according to Gilmer.
“It’s all about the rhythm and if you watch the good shaggers, they all just kind of flow through it,” he said. He believes that’s the best way to shag.
“The people who really enjoy it, it seems like they smile the entire time. I know I do. Too many people get too serious about it. It’s a pretty dance the way a lot of them are doing it today, but it’s prettiest when you see people dancing who just have the rhythm. Those are the ones other people just stop dancing to watch.”
Griffin agrees shagging well is more about natural rhythm than technique.
“It’s an art form,” she said. “I’ve lived in the North and tried to teach people to do the shag, and not everybody can do it. If you can do it, not everybody is good. They might do the right steps, but they don’t look right.”
Griffin said the best music to shag to is “rhythm and blues, not Chubby Checker and all of that.”
The shag is a male lead dance, but the female’s role has changed over the years.
“When I was young only the guys did most of the dancing and the girls just hung on,” said Duke, 66. She grew up in Whiteville, N.C., but spent her summers dancing in North Myrtle Beach.
“Now the ladies get to do a lot more,” said Mangan. “We get to show off a little bit too.”
According to some, there are very subtle regional variations to the shag. Gilmer said he can often pinpoint where someone is from by watching them dance.
“Some people from North Carolina give two kicks on the end,” said Mangan. “The ladies give a slight kick in South Carolina.”
But she said the differences are slight and shaggers from North Carolina would have no trouble partnering with someone from another region.
“Back in my day of the shag in South Carolina, you generally knew because of where someone grew up if they would be a good dancer,” Griffin said.
The best dancers were usually from small towns, she said, and Gilmer agrees.
“I don’t remember many shaggers from Atlanta or Charlotte or bigger towns like that,” he said.
Duke said the growing popularity of formal shag lessons has culled out a lot of the regional variations.
No matter where or how shaggers learned, she’s not at all surprised shagging remains so popular. But she believes it’s particularly special to those, like her, who learned to shag when they were young and came to the beach to show off their moves.
“It brings back memories of being suntanned and laughing and having a good time,” she said. “It’s something you can come back and do 40 years later and strut your stuff and remember when you were young.”