The Venerable Shag is a Southern Classic
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The Shag, which has been described as a laid-back version of the Jitterbug, has its roots in the dance crazes of the 1920s and '30s that swept New York and other large cities, but the dance has evolved into a Southern tradition. Friday evening, shaggers turned out on the banks of the Roanoke River in downtown Plymouth to dance to the Band of Oz, a group that's been playing rhythm-and-blues and soul music for shaggers since the 1970s.
In the video above, John Daigle -- in the yellow shirt -- is shagging with his wife Eileen. In the background, Chris Winstead, in the pink shirt, dances with Jim Hardison. They're members of the Eastern North Carolina Shag Club in Greenville. You can pick up on the easy tempo of the dance as you watch these dancers, but the Shag's ancestors were much more frenzied.
In June 1937, syndicated columnist George Ross issued a tongue-in-cheek warning to his readers about a wild new dance craze. "'Shag' is the latest dance that threatens to sweep the country," Ross wrote, noting that the dance "has been in vogue in the south for years."
"It is the only dance step ... that goes well to swing music," Ross concluded.
But he was referring to a dance that also went by the name of the Collegiate Shag, which took its place with two other wildly popular dances of that era -- the Big Apple and the famous Jitterbug. All three were fast, frenetic dances done to swing music. Dancers flailed their arms wildly and did high kicks. A careless dancer on a crowded floor could easily deck another dancer who happened to be too close.
The Collegiate Shag and other swing-era dances were done to music with a tempo of around 200 or more beats per minute. In the brief clip below from the 1939 movie "Blondie Meets the Boss," you can see the dramatic difference between the Collegiate Shag and the more sedate Carolina Shag.
There are many variations of the story about how the Carolina Shag evolved from its wilder ancestors, but most of the stories agree that the dance was developed in the beach towns of North Carolina and South Carolina in the 1940s and '50s. Instead of the rapid tempo swing music, however, dancers did the Carolina Shag to the more serene tempo of rhythm and blues -- around 110 to 130 beats per minute.
That's a more civilized pace that also allows shaggers to sip a beer as they dance.