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The Jitterbug Met R&B

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

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With my back to a hot pink souvenir shop hawking body piercing, Free Hermit Crabs and 59-cent saltwater taffy, I'd have no trouble bouncing a rock off the doors of a half-dozen beach music clubs. Ducks and Ducks Too, OD Café, OD Arcade and Lounge, and Pirates Cove would be a cinch. Fat Harold's - now Fat Harold's would take some doing. Maybe two stones' throws, tops.

There's hardly room for a windup, though. It's 38 degrees in the January shade, but still some 5,000 people have jammed into the few core blocks of North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, known as Ocean Drive, or OD. It's a popular vacation spot, chockablock with beachwear shops, nothing-fancy hotels and weathered houses. But to many folks who grew up in this neck of the South, this is hallowed ground. Born-again country, of sorts. OD is where the shag came back to life.

Never mind the recent Mike Myers movie by a similar name. Down here, the shag is a dance, a stylish, holding hands sort of dance, as old-time Southern as pouring salted peanuts into a sweating bottle of "co-cola." It evolved during the 1940s, at oceanfront pavilions from Virginia Beach to Savannah, Georgia. There, ducktailed hipsters in peg-legged pants shagged to throbbing jukeboxes, affecting an aloof style whose highest expression was cool. From the beach, the shag migrated inland and found fertile ground in country club and cotton crossroads alike. For years the shag was a fixture of Southern culture. You shagged at sock hops, debutante parties, fraternity dances. You shagged in abandoned parking lots and at the end of dead-end roads. And during the summers, you made a pilgrimage to the ramshackle bars and jukebox dives that dotted the Southern shore.

For a few dark decades, the shag was pushed into the margins of Southern life. Elvis and the Beatles put a new twist on the dance floor, and in 1954 Hurricane Hazel turned much of the shagging coast to rubble. After a time, too, the architects of shag were, well, architects. And bosses and employees, mamas and daddies. The dance was still a staple of country club weekends, but shagging as a central focus of life was history.

Then, in 1980, an ex-lifeguard named Gene Laughter planned a reunion of beach bums at OD. A few hundred people were expected; several thousand showed up. The notion of a formal shagging organization was planted, and the shag renaissance commenced. The Society of Stranders (S.O.S.), named after South Carolina's 60-mile-long Grand Strand, now hosts two massive shag festivals each year, the Spring Safari and the Fall Migration. At each, upward of 12,000 celebrants clog OD.

Those parties are open to every gawker and sunburned golfer who drops by. January's Mid-Winter Classic is different. This is worship. To attend Mid-Winter, you must be a card-carrying member of any of nearly 100 regional shag clubs. These are people who raced hot rods to the beach, lying to their parents about where they were staying. Who remember The Pad on OD, and White Lake's notorious Crystal Club, where feet and fists swung with equal fervor, and the sweaty "jump joints" of Carolina Beach. Who tell me, with a straight face, that shagging today still can be - if you let it, you know - a way of life.

Now it's two o'clock on a Friday afternoon, and Fat Harold's Beach Club is packed to the gills. I squeeze through the door and step into the thrumming beat of Vance Kelly's "Wall to Wall." Fat Harold's is a low-slung building, ringed with dozens of round wooden platters bearing the names of shag clubs. In one corner, barely lit by the red glow of an "Exit" sign, is a pair from north of the Mason-Dixon line: the Cincinnati Bop Club and the Southern New England Shag Club. I find a few open inches along a long wooden rail and watch.

The shagger's fundamental move is "the basic," an eight-count step in which partners move into, then away from, one another. From there it's all Southern-fried jitterbug, highly improvisational, festooned on the fly with spins, fancy footwork and not-so-subtle brushes of hip and chest. Without missing a beat, men mop sweaty brows with white handkerchiefs pulled from the pockets of relaxed-fit jeans. The best seem to glide through the air from the waist up, but their feet are a blur. Shaggers can dance all night in the space of a hula hoop.

I strike up a conversation with a perky, mid-50s blonde named Aggie Ervin, who insists that she's no shag proselytizer. Just here to have a good time. But her friend, she tells me, with arched brows, is serious about the shag. "She won't dance with a guy," she says, "'til she sees him dance with somebody else."

At her elbow, that friend submits a mild defense. "You at least ought to be able to dance and smile," fusses Dianne Hines. "If you're not smiling, you're counting your steps." It's a warning shot over my dusty Weejuns. Since college, my connection to the shag has been relegated to the occasional wedding reception. I consider the dance floor, then hear my subconscious: "One-two-three, one-two-three, back, back..." Not quite yet.

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