The Jitterbug Met R&B

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

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.

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.

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