The beaches of North and South Carolina between
Wilmington and Myrtle Beach — known as The Grand Strand — birthed one of the longest-lasting dance steps in modern times, leaving an indelible mark on the culture and history of both states. Now half a century since its creation, the Carolina Shag still entices and entertains generations of Americans.
However, Columbia also played a surprisingly pivotal role in the early development of the shag before it was polished into its current form on the beach. During the 1930s, three students from the University of South Carolina asked for admission to an African-American dance hall called the Big Apple Club, which was the former House of Peace Synagogue located on Park Street in Columbia. The young white men were permitted to sit in the balcony and observe the lively crowd. They returned the following week with more bystanders to watch “Big Apple” dancing and eventually developed their own style of the dance they named the “Little Apple” out of respect for the African-American form.
Swing dance evolved from Little Apple into “Carolina Jitterbug” during the 1940s, then “Carolina Shag” in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s. The final stage of evolution for what is now the Carolina Shag occurred in the beachfront pavilions of South Carolina and North Carolina, providing a strong and nostalgic association with a particular style of ’50s doo-wop sound called “beach music.” Though the steps and moves of the Carolina Shag developed in South Carolina, its name was coined from its prolific use in the dance halls of North Carolina, which leads to confusion and debate over which state has legitimate claim over its true origin. In 1984, South Carolina established Carolina Shag as the state’s official dance in acknowledgment of its significant cultural impact on the state, also ensuring its survival.
Regardless of which Carolina professes dominion over the dance’s creation, the basic six-count step of the Carolina Shag has been mostly the same, and it can be danced to any style of music with a matching beat, making it versatile and timeless. At its essence, the Carolina Shag is a two-person, male-led dance utilizing some basic steps while offering room for spontaneity.
“Bobby, my husband, and I went ‘shagging’ one night, and I remember hearing [pop artist] Meghan Trainor and thinking that her music was not one of the traditional shag songs,” says Julia Haas, who picked up shagging just a few years ago. She is far more experienced now and enjoys how the Carolina Shag can be danced to any six count song.
Julia’s first encounter with the Carolina Shag happened at Ocean Drive Pavilion in North Myrtle Beach. She was interested in learning but did not take it up for several years. With her interest piqued, she and Bobby enrolled in a class and have not looked back. They met fellow shaggers through a Society of Stranders event in North Myrtle Beach soon after they finished learning their basic shag steps. After seeing some of the more advanced shaggers, Julia says, “We thought we knew how to shag dance, but soon realized we still had lots to learn!” Since joining a local group in Columbia, the couple has found dear friends they would not have known otherwise. “We’ve met lots of wonderful people through the shag community, and I recently hosted a holiday party with the folks we’ve met through doing this. It’s a culture, not just a dance.”
Shag dancing also has a competitive format, allowing shaggers to test their skills against one another to see who has the best moves. Though Julia and her husband enjoy shag dancing purely for pleasure, Conrad, their teenage son, became involved at a competitive level. “Bobby and I have no desire to shag dance competitively, but Conrad enjoys that aspect of it a lot,” Julia says.
Due to the longevity and adaptability of shag dancing, it possesses an uncanny ability to bridge gaps between generations and skill levels. The dance has encouraged lifelong friendships, providing participants with a healthy way to forget about differences or troubles.
“It crosses so many barriers,” Julia says. “You’ll see people in their 20s shag dancing with people in their 60s. Folks of different ethnic backgrounds will be there, too. It’s just wholesome fun, and the innocence of it takes me back in time.” Julia also notes that people as young as 8 years old to upwards of 80-plus shag.
Sounds as though everyone could stand to do a little shag dancing once in a while.