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The Jitterbug Met R&B

And the shag, a stylish Southern dance, was born and reborn along the Carolina coast

My alma mater was a sanctuary during the shag's dark ages and became a full-blown temple during the renaissance. Still, when I arrived at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1979, I didn't know shag from Berber. I learned what was dubbed the "college shag," a version simplified, I always figured, to keep keg beer inside the dancer's ever-present cup. For years a pained expression crossed my mother-in-law's face each time we shagged. She moved to the classic shag of the 1950s and considered my brutish translation the tango of the philistines.

I'm on my way out of Fat Harold's when I bump into one of the saviors of the shag. I'd seen Phil Sawyer's photograph in the book Shag: The Legendary Dance of the South. Phil was at that first beach bum reunion and has served as S.O.S. president for 11 years. He's ruddy-faced and tall, chatty as we tuck ourselves into a corner of the white cinder-block OD Arcade and Lounge. I offer to buy him a cup of coffee, and he checks his watch before ordering a Budweiser.

When Phil was 14 years old, he and his pals danced "a little country jitterbug" in OD's long-gone Roberts Pavilion as the beach bums threw pennies at their feet. "Back then you could buy a hot dog for a dime," Sawyer grins, "so we were scoopin' up the pennies. We were too country to know they were making fun of us."

It was the 1940s, and a cultural cross-fertilization was under way on the Carolina coast. The jukebox company that serviced Atlantic Beach, a predominantly black resort just down Ocean Boulevard, lifted from the Wurlitzers the "race music" of the 1940s - it's called rhythm and blues and soul today - and spun Bull Moose Jackson, Billy Ward and The Dominoes, and LaVern Baker back in OD. "You could hear that stuff only when you were at the beach and away from your parents," Phil explains, and that's how it came to be called beach music.

Similar exchanges of vinyl culture occurred up and down the coast. "The jitterbug," Phil says, "met R&B." The beach bums slowed the tempo and eliminated the jitterbug's wilder moves. They created the shag.

The next night I hit the beach with a dance partner who promises not to snicker at my steps. My wife, Julie, and I knock around the dance floors at most of OD's lounges, but we're drawn mostly to Ducks. It's a converted storefront, its walls heavy with mounted waterfowl draped with ragged, smoke-tinged feathers. I know of no other place where you can dance under a model train pulling the cremated remains of a pair of shagging stalwarts. The tunes at Ducks tend toward slower, "smoothies music," and the better dancers are there, including a few West Coast swing dancers who discovered the shag a few years back.

We're there when The Clovers' "Nip Sip" throbs out of the speakers. It's a shag anthem with an infectious backbeat that pulls at my feet like an outgoing tide. "C'mon," Julie's eyes implore, and for the last time that night I head for the floor.

My steps are still a bit rusty, but all night long they've been coming back, just like everyone said they would. Julie's moves are as smooth as her mother's, and she sings along - "Goin' to the party, to get with the bunch / Got a dollar for my nippin' and a dime for my lunch" - and tells me about learning to shag by dancing with her daddy, in stocking feet, in their living room at home. I mop sweat from my brow with the cuff of my shirt and think back to those days when I didn't wear relaxed-fit jeans. After a few more songs, I even forget to count my steps.

By T. Edward Nickens

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