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Summertime’s calling me to the dance floor

Getting in step with a Charleston-born Shag instructor

The personal fulfillment I received during my 25 years as a Shag instructor is immeasurable; the joy and excitement across each student’s face as he or she conquered and mastered the Shag was priceless. Often, this was the first time some students had actually danced. I nicknamed my classes “shagravation,” so the initial dubious or resistant partners could and would relax and listen to my tried-and-true, established method of teaching the wonderful dance called the Shag.

The dance has been a great deal more for many folks throughout the years as this South Carolina State dance, the Shag, evolved into somewhat of a way of life — a lifestyle in a class of its own. In addition to enabling more proactive involvement (hence more fun) during many social events — especially in the South — it helps develop a sense of self-confidence and more of a “hands-on” feeling with the activities; the fun of being able to dance the Shag with a smoothness and style all your own, thus, greater enjoyment as you dance with the music!

A brief history shows us that the Shag came off the heels of the Greatest Generation’s Jitterbug, as well as the similar jazz-based dance the Lindy, frequently seen in ballroom dance classes, such as our beloved Charleston Cotillion — both known by other names, such as “The Swing,” “The East Coast Quick Step” and more — all originally having a six-beat/step count — and all helped pave the way for free-flowing dancing for couples. All have one major difference from the Shag — the count, hence, the beat. Often they had a six count, but eight movements or steps. For example, the Lindy was taught as, “one two three, one two three, rock step.” All of these dances encouraged the dancer to firmly plant alternating feet on the dance floor — a deliberate count or the quick step (lingering on the count for half the amount of time as a full count).

The male always starts out on his left foot; the female, always right — no pun intended! This put the couple in absolute sync with one another throughout the duration of the dance. The Shag has refined itself and defined its steps to a more understandable beat, count, rhythm — all in accordance with the basic 4/4 timing in music. The difference between the Shag and the Jitterbug, Lindy, et cetera (and eventually the most often cause for “missing the beat”) is that most people leave off the final, finishing two steps to the 4/4 rhythm.

I developed, therefore, a method of counting to teach my students (and has since caught on and become often used today in Shag classes). This helped simplify the whole beat thing. In short, my method brought things into focus for less-than-natural dancers. The count is: One and two, three and four, five six. The “and” being a half-step (half count, half “beat”), nevertheless, a beat. So, look closely — it is an eight-count (eight steps) rhythm. So, using the knees as “shock absorbers” and eliminating any up-and-down movements, as it were, one could observe a couple dancing to the music without jerky, stop/start, ill-aimed movements. The couples were dancing together, in unison — the fun of dancing, after all.

A little practice is all it takes and it does become second nature — your ears, brain, body, feet all become in “tune” with the songs you chose to write your musical story on the dancefloor. Such fun! Remember the first chord you played on the guitar or piano? Didn’t think you could, did you? But you wanted to. Now, do this for your dance-loving partner … you will soon become a fan — quickly!

Beginners had difficulty smoothing out their steps to standard “beach music,” as it could often encourage bouncing movements because of the lively rhythms; therefore, I began using music with a 4/4 rhythm (beat) and a smooth over-tune (melody on top). Though I always kept students engaged with the familiar “beach music” melodies and allowed them to try it on for size at the end of each class, I found that most flourished with smoothing out their body moves on the dance floor with these solid-beat, smooth-over-tune songs to train the ear and entire body to “flow” with the music.

I usually chose a few popular songs of that day, to keep them thinking about the Shag while not in the classroom — it brought out the smoothness of melodies with a danceable beat to mind — this is good, I thought. Two such songs — for example, Rod Stewart’s “This Old Heart of Mine” and Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is” helped students to now actually hear the melodies on top as well as feeling the beat. The good old standard Shag favorites, such as Earl Bostic’s “Night and Day,” The Drifters “There Goes My Baby” and the likes, had plenty of smooth “music on top” but now the students were hearing it; therefore, dancing “with” it in a smoothed-out style so pleasing to the shaggers and onlookers alike.

Having been shagging since the young age of six or seven, I knew I loved to dance. It soon began to pay off in fun ways, such as winning little shag contests here and there; my first win was at East Bay Playground, with Hazel tapping our shoulders, my dance partner for that particular dance, Bachman Smith, and mine — announcing we had won. Hooray! As the years progressed, so did my experiences shagging and finding it to be quite a beautiful, smooth and satisfying dance. Once I approached the dance floor, it became my canvas on which I painted a picture with my feet and body — weaving a story ... the beat and music as my inspiration. I do believe “dancing is dreaming with the feet.” So many others were interested, but, alas, exclaimed they just could not dance. Oh yeah? Not on my watch!

Thus, I began teaching all over Charleston — adult classes were held in the high schools and middle schools in the evenings, in addition to classes at the College of Charleston, the Medical University of South Carolina and others. Plus, many churches and private groups gave me an opportunity to teach our state dance. I had at least 150 new students every six weeks when a new class would begin — two hours each of fun and a great teaching/learning experience for both the students and me. It even brought about Channel 5 and John Rivers’ interest — at his request, I was able to develop an instructional video entitled “Shaggin USA.” It was the first of its kind, but many followed and the Shag flourished as people grew to adore this way of life.

As far back as I can remember the Shag has been an important part of the social scene, certainly in Charleston. Even our beautiful churches featured teen sock hops where the Shag was the main event. From Hazel’s playground to St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s churches, to the Rockville and all other regattas, Shagging became the after-the-race focus for the events. Shagging was the draw, the feature and the focus. Night clubs and fraternity houses in Charleston and the rest of the state as well as in North Carolina and Virginia — and beyond — caught the Shag bug — and it has spread like wildfire ever since.

Even today’s youth find themselves drawn to the dance floors and learning to shag. As before, to some it comes naturally; others need some lessons — which are fun in and of themselves. Teaching this much-loved, aerobic and social activity has been most rewarding for me. I hope to Shag all the way to the other side — Lord willing!

Reflecting on life being reared in Charleston fills me with so many endearing memories, full of delightful tales of family, friends and the historic Holy City; it is always fun and somewhat amazing to recognize how much of a part the Shag has played in our lives through the generations. I currently live in Columbia, where my business landed me some years ago; however, my heart is set on returning to my homeland, Charleston, before my feet no longer “move to the beat.” Happy dancing!

The author would love to hear from old students and friends with whom she has lost contact. You may reach Martha via email at: mduncanmts@gmail.com.

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