We Went to the Motherland of the Carolina Shag To Learn the Classic Beach Dance (And You Should Too!)
Discover this decades-old dance and its swinging heart on the South Carolina coast.
"Small steps—you've got to take small steps. Like you're dancin' on a divin' board," our instructor says. "You haven't done it like this before, have you, Bryan?"
Jennifer Duke Batten chirps her commands in a cheery voice that suits her small stature and her penchant for grasping people's fore-arms when she talks to them. The Bryan in question is my father, Bryan Cribb. We're only a few minutes into our beginners' shag lesson at Fat Harold's Beach Club, and no, we have not done it quite like this before.
It's not that we've never danced the Carolina Shag. My dad and I have danced together for as long as I can remember: at family weddings, at parents' weekend parties during my college years, in the beams of car headlights in our Charleston driveway when I was a girl. It's just that our version has always been freewheeling and unrefined, with frenzied steps, wild turns, and reckless twirls. In other words, it is not the shag at all.
So it was time, we decided, to learn South Carolina's official state dance, our state dance, the right way. We are here to tame our undisciplined moves into the classic, fleet-footed swing dance that's marked by eight steps done tightly in what's called a "slot formation" over six beats. It's a dance that's both technical and as relaxed as a summer night out on the water, and feels wholly right when executed on sand-dusted bar floors and Lowcountry docks.
And to learn our steps properly, it seems we've come to the motherland. "This is the home of the shag," Batten tells me before class. "A lot of things change, but where you need to learn? That part does not."
She's talking about North Myrtle Beach, a low-key South Carolina community at the northern end of a 60-mile corridor of beaches known as the Grand Strand. More subdued and family-friendly than the high-rise-spangled shores of Myrtle Beach 20 miles down the road, North Myrtle has all the makings of a nostalgic summer escape: an arcade with Skee-Ball and a photo booth; a laid-back seafood shack; and a glittering Ferris wheel that crowns Ocean Boulevard when the warm weather rolls in. It's been a shag destination for decades, home to not one but two 10-day-long shag festivals and an ecosystem of clubs overflowing with dancers of every generation all summer long.
Though there's some disagreement about the dance's city of origin (Carolina Beach, in North Carolina, and greater Myrtle Beach both lay claim), there's no debating that the modern version of the shag belongs to the shore. But it began in the city: Spawned by the Lindy Hop of the 1920s and famously danced at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom by African-American patrons, the evolving swing made its way to the Jim Crow South in the 1940s. There, it was relegated to segregated venues and the Carolina beaches, where bands and jukeboxes at open-air pavilions would play the music that the radio wouldn't.
"The teenagers used to go down to the [Ocean Drive] Pavilion to dance," says Lulu Quick-Rigsby, who works at Fat Harold's and has lived in North Myrtle Beach for more than 35 years. "The good ol' Southern Baptists didn't want anyone seeing the shag because it's a dance from the hips and waist down. They didn't like the music, either, so all of the teenagers would slip down to the beach on the weekends to dance. Or if they came down to the beach with their parents, they'd slip out and go down to The Pad [a popular dance club of the era that's since closed] to learn how to shag."
And North Myrtle Beach is where people have been coming to learn ever since. Which puts us at Fat Harold's, with its faded wood siding, red Bahama-style shutters, and front door that's framed by an oversize depiction of a jukebox that glows at night with honky-tonk brazenness. Inside, there are a few TVs and a pool table, but mostly, there's dancing. "There's always shagging at Fat Harold's," says Judy Duke, who teaches lessons here every Monday night, year-round. "We're the only place where you can shag seven days a week."
It's also the only place where you can find three generations of a family teaching shag lessons on a Monday night: Judy Duke is our instructor's mother. So while Batten commands our beginners' class with her husband, Mitch, Duke is in the room next door coaching the intermediates with Batten's teenage children, Jackson and Lizzie, and their 12-year-old cousin.
What was once the dance of independence-seeking teens has become a full-on family affair, transforming even a dark bar into a PG-13 establishment. It's a tradition that means you walk into Fat Harold's not knowing a soul, and leave with a dance floor full of new friends. "Our oldest customer is 96 years old, and he'll dance with every woman in here before the night is over," Quick-Rigsby tells me. "Sweetest thing this side of the Mississippi River. And children, as long as they're with their mothers and fathers, we'll allow them to be in here until 10. How will they learn to love the shag if we don't let them see it?"
Over the course of our one-hour class, we rotate partners with each new step. I shag with a man with stooped shoulders and deep crows' feet named Alan, and Jacob, a boy who looks about 11 but says he's 15. Some people dance in pairs; others came alone. But you're never without a dance partner at Fat Harold's. "If someone asks you to dance," Batten says at the close of the class, her eyes searching out everyone in the room as a sort of promise, "You always say yes."
I don't make it home to Charleston as often as I'd like to these days. But the next time I'm home, when we've come back from dinner on a warm summer night, I know we'll do what we've done since I wore hair bows and smocked dresses and lacy socks. My dad will flick on the car headlights and crank up the Johnny Rivers in the driveway, and he'll ask me to dance.
And of course, I'll say yes.
Related: Perfect Weekend in Wilmington, North Carolina
The Myrtle Beach International Airport has nonstop service from cities including New York, Boston, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, and Dallas.
One of North Myrtle Beach's greatest charms is its concentration of beach houses and condos for rent. Browse the offerings at Seaside Vacations, where vintage oceanfront gems like The Shell and Mary Ruth Cottage, complete with knotty pine paneling, ensure a sense of nostalgic escape; seasidevacations.com.
Learn how to shag with Judy Duke at Fat Harold's Beach Club in North Myrtle Beach every Monday night from 7 to 9. All levels are welcome, $10 per person, no partner or pre-registration required; fatharolds.com. Clubs that are best known for beach music and shag, in addition to Fat Harold's, are Duck's Beach Club, which sits practically next door (ducksatoceandrive.com); Pirate's Cove (piratescovelounge.com); and the OD Pavilion, the last open-air beach music and shag pavilion in the area (odpavilion.net). Want to pay homage to the greats? Hit the Shagger's Hall of Fame at the Ocean Drive Beach & Golf Resort; oceandriveresort.com.
Shag on the Big Screen
The 1989 nostalgic comedy Shag tells the story of four teenage girlfriends out for a wild weekend in Myrtle Beach in 1963, and stars Phoebe Cates, Annabeth Gish, Bridget Fonda, and Page Hannah (sister to Daryl); streamable online. Also worth a watch: Shag Nation, a tender-hearted short documentary about the scene in North Myrtle Beach; shagnationdoc.blogspot.com.
Shag Events & Festivals
Pick a South Carolina coastal community and the odds are high that there's a shag society or club that puts on regular dances. The Charleston Shag Club holds socials throughout the city that are generally open to the public (charlestonshagclub.wixsite.com), the Beaufort Shag Club puts on dances Wednesday nights and the second Saturday of each month (beaufortshagclub.org), and the Hilton Head Shag Club hosts Friday night dances (hiltonheadshagclub.com). Meanwhile, the Society of Stranders (SOS) spring and fall festivals draw thousands to North Myrtle Beach for 10-day extravaganzas of dance, parades, and more. A smaller midwinter festival runs in January; shagdance.com. For more inspiration, check out the annual National Shag Dance Championships in Myrtle Beach in March; shagnationals.com.