Thirty years ago on April 10, 1984, Gov. Richard Riley signed Act No. 329 designating the shag the official dance of South Carolina. Native South Carolinians grew up hearing their parents talk about it, watching their parents do it and taking lessons themselves.
North Myrtle Beach residents Charlie Womble and his wife, Jackie McGee, are multiple-time national shag champions and are in the Shaggers Hall of Fame and Swing Dance Hall of Fame. They are avid teachers of the dance, hold workshops and have been giving free lessons during the SOS (Society of Stranders) Spring Safari April 4-13 in North Myrtle Beach, an event that attracts thousands of devoted shaggers every year.
When asked how the shag differs from other dances today, Womble had a ready answer.
“It’s how you move,” he said. “In the shag, we go up and back in accordion fashion. We use one hand. The guy is more active.”
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This is in contrast to other dances in which the partners go side-to-side, in a circle or forward and backward. The shag consists of six counts, which are the key to doing it correctly. What makes the shag unique is “how you move your body and your feet within the basic count,” Womble said.
The origin of the shag isn’t definite, but it appeared in the mid-1940s after World War II, possibly around Virginia Beach, Va. It traveled south, becoming a hit in Carolina Beach, N.C., and continuing south where it has made North Myrtle Beach its ultimate home. In the early 1950s, the shag centered on the O.D. Pavilion, Roberts Pavilion and other clubs, specifically on Ocean Drive, also referred to as OD and O.D. That all changed with Hurricane Hazel in 1954.
One of the clubs that has a history from the 1950s and maintains a “shag only” policy is Fat Harold’s Beach Club at 212 Main St. in North Myrtle Beach. It has won “Beach Club of the Year” 11 times and was prepared for SOS Spring Safari.
Ron Amick, Fat Harold’s nephew who began working for his uncle in 1968, said nobody thinks of the Spring Safari as an anniversary.
“People shag all year round,” he said.
Lulu Quick, the club’s office manager, began working for Harold in 1980.
“There’s nothing special for the anniversary,” she said. “I was really not aware of it.”
She recalls, however, the actual proclamation in 1984.
“I remember Harold got all dressed up. So many dignitaries showed up for the tea we had on the beach. You don’t really have tea on the beach.”
Does she shag?
“After four white Russians, I’m the best out there,” she said with a hearty laugh.
Gary Bass, entertainment director at Fat Harold’s, came to the club as a disc jockey decades ago.
“If you wanted to be a DJ relative to beach music, you came to Fat Harold’s,” he said. Bass knows the history of the shag and remembers Fat Harold’s as the mecca for the shag.
More than 100 shag clubs across the U.S. are active today, dance competitions are held and activities that attract shaggers take place throughout the year. The Association of Carolina Shag Clubs Inc. operates to preserve and promote the shag and coordinates activities among the clubs. It also manages and operates SOS.
Ron Whisenant of Little River has been president of SOS since 2000 and a shagger since high school. He said the highlight of SOS Spring Safari is the parade, but the best part is reuniting with shagger friends.
“It’s like a family reunion,” he said. “It’s a great camaraderie we enjoy besides the great dance and the great music.”
Womble explained that the shag is passed on from parents to their children and the dance is taught in South Carolina schools. The Junior Shag Association and Junior Society of Stranders are open to young people. Quick said Harold’s has a junior shag-in social the first Saturday of each month and teens and children as young as age 4 participate.
Zachary McDonald, 31, of North Myrtle Beach, said he’s a third-generation shagger and was in Junior SOS. He was named to Keepers of the Dance, an honor bestowed on former junior shaggers who continue to participate and keep the shag alive. In October 2014 he will be inducted into the Shag Hall of Fame.
“I decided I was going to have fun. That’s what it’s all about,” he said.
He explained that only about 100 members were junior shaggers when he was growing up, but now there are about 2,000 members.
“They are keeping our state dance alive,” he said.
“The shag lifestyle is a wonderful lifestyle,” Whisenant said and praised the events and activities the group is experiencing through SOS Spring Safari. “This is the Garden of Eden for us.”
More information about the shag is at www.shagdance.com. Books about the shag include “And the Bands Played On” and “Fat Harold, The Legendary King of Shag” by Howie Thompson and “Save the Last Dance for Me, a Love Story of the Shag and the Society of Stranders” by Phil Sawyer and Tom Poland.