The Junior Shag Association always sends its SOS in July, a signal for anyone younger than 21 to spend about a week dancing in North Myrtle Beach.
The 20th annual Junior Society of Stranders event kicks off Tuesday for six days of activities centered around the South Carolina state dance, the shag.
Sam West, the association's president for the past year and among its first board of directors, said Junior SOS has continued to grow in turnout and in number of competitions.
Expectations build for the 2011 event to draw the largest count yet, after 1,144 youth participated last July, West said. The array of activities will stay pretty much the same, with just a few tweaks.
"We'll have Band of Oz at the welcome party," he said, referring to the Raleigh, N.C.-based group, "and we're expanding our contests and not doing them all at once."
Tim Thurmond, known online as "Tim the Balloonatic" for his life-size balloon sculpting, also will speak about his chaplain work.
"His story is a great addition to our Sunday devotion," West said.
West, who lives in Hamlet, N.C., southwest of Fayetteville, figured this marks the 12th year of staging Junior SOS in North Myrtle Beach.
"We used to have it in Charlotte," he said. "All the kids just have an urge to be at the beach in July. That's where we get the greatest numbers - when we do something at the beach."
West recalled his shagging debut and summer vacations to the Grand Strand, at age 8 or 9 and encouraged by his mother, amid his involvement in playing baseball, basketball, football and soccer.
"But any time I had a chance to go dance at the beach," he said, "I had to be at the beach. I had to give up a practice or give up a game."
Barry Thigpen, founder and chairman of the National Shag Dance Championships, which happen every March in Myrtle Beach, said he enjoys watching youth pick up the baton to keep shag growing through generations.
With children who want to learn, enhance and show off their shag, this "fun-filled week" for Junior SOS, which "improves year after year," proves that "the shag is not dying."
Thigpen attributes another change in the national shag championships from this past March to Junior SOS.
"We had more participants in the junior division than we've ever had before," he said, noting that three $5,000 memorial scholarships were awarded this past spring, triple the usual number.
River Harmon, a 14-year-old Myrtle Beach resident, has blended shagging with baseball.
The Myrtle Beach High School pitcher said dancing since age 10 and doing Junior SOS every year helps improve his coordination, which he applies to other activities, which include surfing and wakeboarding.
"One thing that has helped me from shagging would be it has brought me out of my comfort zone," River said. "I'm not shy anymore."
He said he has no doubt shagging will remain part of his life forever, and he enjoys reuniting with friends made from as far away as California at every Junior SOS.
"If you learn to do it, you fall in love with it," River said, "and it's fun and keeps you in shape."
River, who remembered wearing out a pair of shoes at the 2010 Junior SOS, said shag occupies its own place in the universe.
"It's referred to as the 'shag world,' " he said, "because it really is a world of its own."
River's mother, Lou Ann Harmon, said he got hooked because family friends with a daughter needed a boy to take shag lessons with.
"He ended up loving it," Lou Ann Harmon said, explaining the dance has plenty of room for males.
Much as 1984 world champion pairs figure skater Paul Martini of Canada has remarked on one perk from choosing his sport, Harmon sees shag dancing as "a good way to meet girls" and that River "found that out early on."
"He will go out there on that floor, and he doesn't leave that floor," Harmon said. "As soon as he finished [dancing] with one girl, another one's standing there."
River has borrowed his sister, Chandler, 18, for practice with steps and holds, and she also has learned to shag so she doesn't just sit and watch at dances.
Harmon and her husband of 25 years, Glenn Harmon, a Myrtle Beach native, have found shagging as another means of family bonding, and they attend many shag contests together out of town.
"It's as important as a trip to Disney World," she said.
Speaking the day after the University of South Carolina baseball team won its second straight College World Series, Lou Ann Harmon laughed about how the family kept River's dancing hobby a secret from his teammates on the diamond, even scheduling dance outings around games.
"When all the boys found out, they asked him to give them lessons," she said, "to dance in the dugout."
West concluded that meeting people on the dance floor has worked for the past century, especially when families dance.
"When kids grow up dancing," he said, "it gives them a sense of camaraderie."
West and Harrmon appreciate how social dancing instills values in youth, especially for boys in respecting girls, and dressing in a mature, classy way.
"It teaches them what they had back in the 1930s and '40s," West said.
West said children who learn how to shag dance today stay part of the Junior Shag Association as adults and parents.
"They're all good kids," he said, happy that parents feel part of Junior SOS events even if they are just sitting and watching.
The success of ABC-TV's "Dancing with the Stars" and Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance" also helps introduce dancing, to more youth, West said.
"That's bringing a lot of interest in couple dancing, and keeping it in the forefront," he said "Ballroom dancing is bigger than ever."
Contact STEVE PALISIN at 444-1764.