And They Danced – How the Shag became – and remains – a cherished part of Grand Strand history and culture

Posted: July 7, 2023 at 10:59 am


They flock to the Grand Strand during a glorious fall migration, thin out in winter, then re-emerge for a rousing spring safari. But don’t look to the skies. This creature is fully grounded, identifiable by its unique, rhythmic footwork. If you hear the strains of old-school R&B in the background, take it as confirmation that you have discovered a most curious South Carolina species: the shagger. The tunes you hear are called beach music. And that fancy stepping? It is known as the Shag – adopted in 1984 as the official state dance.

A Lesson in Shag

A fun swing dance with a few jitterbug vibes – that is how some folks describe the shag, which came to life in the 1930s and ’40s on the beaches of South Carolina and North Carolina. Performed with a partner, its most basic step is upbeat, quick and smooth, consisting of a six-count, eight-step pattern danced in a slot. In dance circles, it is considered relatively unfussy and easy to learn – unless you are a first timer.

And that is what I was the night I showed up for a dance lesson at famed North Myrtle Beach dance club, Fat Harold’s aka “The Fatman’s House.” Having been a South Carolinian for nearly 40 years, it was high time I acted like one. With me were my shag-curious better half and niece, both of whom sweetly volunteered to look foolish right alongside me.

Being a Monday, there would be no big crowds to snicker at my beginner missteps, right? Wrong. As it happened, PBS was there filming a travel program(to air in January), and EVERYBODY turned out for a chance to be a part of the fun. The night’s instructors, Jackie McGee, and husband, Charlie Womble, were dressed to impress. “Are you ready to shag?” Jackie shouted to the crowd. As the couple surveyed the mass of shagging hopefuls, they expressed faith in our ability to nail this. (Something in my rhythm-less soul really wanted to believe them.) But these were no ordinary dance teachers. If you go to Jackie and Charlie’s website (the first clue they are a big deal!), you can read all about them:

National Hall of Fame Beach Shaggers Jackie McGee and Charlie Womble teach shag lessons at Fat Harold’s and are also big proponents of keeping the dance alive and thriving. The two dancers have been competing together since 1981.


That all-capped bio is followed by a list of national accolades about as long as the Grand Strand. Yep, these two were more than qualified to round up an awkward herd of wannabes and make shaggers out of us. Elbow bumping and toe stomping aside, I was glad to blend into that herd as we all concentrated on mirroring the steps of our more experienced partners. Mine was Jaxson, a nimble young man with a keen sense of rhythm and polished Shag know-how. “Pick your feet up!” he commanded as I counted my steps aloud. He was confident, bold and authoritative – never mind that he was celebrating his 8th birthday.

Despite the laughter and cheers sent up by the highly supportive audience of regulars, it was clear that shaggers take their dancing seriously. Each year, the best of the best vies for titles at various competitions, including the National Shag Dance Championships in Myrtle Beach. North Myrtle Beach is a hotspot for shagging shenanigans with clubs like Fat Harold’s, Duck’s Beach Club, and the Spanish Galleon drawing a sea of dancers each year. At OD Pavilion, the last open-air shagging pavilion on the East Coast, is still a hotspot for shagging and socializing. Across the way in the Ocean Drive Beach and Golf Resort, you will find the North Myrtle Beach Shaggers Hall of Fame, a nostalgic collection reflecting the fun spirit of this iconic piece of the Grand Strand’s past.

Main Street even boasts its own Shag Walk of Fame with sidewalk stars honoring the area’s most iconic dancers, Hollywood style. Historical markers for Roberts Pavilion (1936 to 1954) and OD Pavilion can be found on the corner of Ocean Drive and Main Street. These serve as reminders to visitors and locals that they are standing on shagging holy ground.

A Lesson in Shag History

Photo courtesy of Kristye McDonald’s collection

Interpreting the roots of this time-honored tradition requires a willingness to delve into a past that is, at turns, both light-hearted and troubling. While arguments abound as to who first introduced the dance, the origins of shagging can be firmly assigned to the beaches of the Grand Strand. But the story does not begin with a couple of bored kids listening to music and kicking up sand. Rather, the answer is best reflected in a “chicken or the egg” kind of riddle: What came first, beach music or the shag?

“The music created the dance,” said JJ Kinlaw, known across the Mid-Atlantic as Superjock JJ. The long-time disc jockey has been spinning popular tunes since the 1970s from Virginia down through the Carolinas. Now an on-air personality at the North Myrtle Beach-based station, 94.9 “The Surf,” he is part of a Wednesday-night program called “Live from Ocean Drive” broadcast from Fat Harold’s. To explain the evolution of the Shag phenomenon, Kinlaw goes back several decades to a time when R&B was not a mainstream genre.

“Black R&B artists had a hard time getting national airplay,” Kinlaw remembered. “So, the black communities along the Grand Strand established these open-air pavilions and clubs where they could dance to R&B music.”

Shag’s origins were born from the confluence of racial segregation and musical trends. In the World War II era of the 1940s, black music caught the attention of white kids in a surprising “cross-pollination,” according to Phil Sawyer in “Save the Last Dance for Me: A Love Story of the Shag and the Society of Shaggers.” Something shocking happened at the black dance pavilions along the Grand Strand. As the war wound down and the popularity of swing music waned, the irresistible sounds of “race music” thumped, slithered and rolled its way across the bellies of ocean breezes, hitting the ears of white kids looking for more interesting ways to kill time along the Carolina beaches. They threw taboos to the wind and crossed those stringent racial lines, showing up at these so-called “jump joints” to watch black kids move in exciting, mysterious ways to forbidden music.

What they heard there mesmerized them.

What they saw there sent the pulsing in their ears reverberating straight down to their feet.

“This was the beauty of what came to be known as Carolina beach music and the Shag,” said Kinlaw. “It brought white and black kids together – and they danced.”

Curt Platt, a member of local bands in the 1970s and ’80s, is organizer of the annual Beach Urban Dance Classic in Myrtle Beach, a gathering where one might spy what has now become a rarity: black shaggers. Curt grew up in the black community of Atlantic Beach, a place he remembers as thriving and rich with sounds of R&B and lots of dancing to go with it.

“I looked to my aunts and uncles for dance history as they remembered those days in the 1940s and 1950s when the Shag became a big deal,” he said from his home in Northern Virginia. “There was Charlie’s Place in Myrtle Beach, where some people say the Shag was born. Black entertainers like Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles stayed there when they performed in Myrtle Beach. Back then, they could only spend the night in black-owned motels and only play in black clubs. Their music was a driving force behind the dance we call the Swing, though white people call it the Shag.”

The site of Charlie’s Place, located in a part of Myrtle Beach called The Hill, bears a historical marker that recounts a notorious 1950 attack carried out by gun toting KKK members angered by the sight of folks getting along, namely, whites and blacks dancing the Shag together. While the gunfire tempered the carefree vibe of the club, bullets could not stop the music or the dancing.

Dancers cut the rug in 1941 at a 24th Infantry dance social for African American soldiers in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

“White kids wanted black kids to teach them to dance, and they did,” said Curt.

As the high-energy, high-stepping dances of the Big Band era – the Swing, Lindy Hop, Jitterbug – slowed to match the more laid-back rhythms of R&B “beach music,” the footwork was executed much closer to the ground. The person or group responsible for those changes remains a topic of debate. Like classic cars, juke boxes, and soda fountains, the Shag flourished as part and parcel of the overall flavor of the Grand Strand. But once the rock-n-roll era was ushered in, things changed yet again.

“The Shag craze died down in the 1960s largely due to the Beatles and the popularity of their music, “ said Charlie Womble. “The fascination with any dance pivots on it being passed on, and rock-n-roll put a stop to that.”

The Grand Strand, by all accounts, became a sadder place for it. But consider this a history lesson at its most basic. For every dance historian out there, there is a differing account of how the Shag came to be. The only aspects that most everyone agrees upon: The dance was born in black dance joints along the Carolina shoreline, and the Myrtle Beach area was most likely ground zero.

Shagging in the New Millennium

Today, the Shag once again enjoys firm footing in South Carolina culture. This is due in large part to dancers like Jackie and Charlie, for whom shagging has never been mere sport.

“This is our identity,” said Charlie, sitting outside of Fat Harold’s on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. “All of our friends dance here, our leisure time is spent here, we teach lessons here – this is our life.”

So, how was the Shag revived decades after trends rendered it a quaint chapter in local history? As it happened, the people who grew up loving this dance missed the old ways so much they worked to make it relevant again. Indeed, Jackie, Charlie, JJ Kinlaw and other devotees of the dance and beach music have their fingers on the pulse of North Myrtle Beach’s Shag culture, participating with and promoting organizations like the Society of Shaggers, which draws legions of shaggers to Ocean Drive for the SOS Spring Safari to kick off the beach season. This is followed by the Fall Migration – one last hurrah before winter hibernation gets underway. These wildly popular events are filled with competitions, street parties, parades, live beach music, and tons of opportunities for shagging.

“The goal was to bring it back,” said Jackie. “But it wasn’t just about the music or the dance.”

“It was about a lifestyle,” interjected Charlie.

And that lifestyle has caught on as evidenced by the long list of Shag clubs cited on the SOS website. From New York and Pennsylvania all the way down to Florida, folks are meeting weekly to enjoy shagging fun. Broaden the search, and you’ll find dedicated Shag hubs nationwide from here to California.

Hundreds of shaggers can be found on any given night at Fat Harold’s Beach Club. Fat Harold’s Beach Club, located on Main Street in the Ocean Drive district in North Myrtle Beach, is known to many as the Home of Shag.

Locally, the Florence Shag Club is a vibrant group that meets on Fridays at Circle Fountain. A mix of lifelong shaggers and newbies, members consider an evening of socializing and shagging to be the best part of the week. And just like at Fat Harold’s, I encountered couples who found romance on the dance floor.

“My late wife, Margie, and I met on the dance floor at a Shag club in Sumter,” said George Morris, a South Carolina Shaggers Hall of Famer who has been dancing since age 14. At 86 years old, he has been practicing his craft for a whopping 72 years. “I was lucky to have grown up in the age of what we called ‘fast dancing,’” he said. “It has kept me young.”

Nancy Windham, a Florence physician, found a welcoming social circle years ago after her marriage ended.

“When I became single, I really became interested in learning more about Shag,” she said. “I made new friends and had a lot of fun dancing. I still love it!”

Another longtime member, Sally King, once found herself locked in a Shag-less marriage.

“When I finally got divorced, I made sure I found a man who wanted to dance,” she laughed.

And while there’s a lot of silver hair to be seen inside these dance clubs, the bottom line is this: the survival of the species called Shaggers rests upon the shoulders of younger generations.

“Now, we have a situation where generation after generation are honoring Shag traditions,” said Jackie. “Each year, hundreds of young people meet on Ocean Drive to participate in Junior SOS, which is sponsored by the Junior Shag Association. That is how we are doing our part to keep Shag alive and honor those who came before us.”

While it is rare to see black kids teaching white kids the Shag these days, that piece of Grand Strand history stands in testament to the power of music and dance to bring people together – beach music and the Shag, that is.

As Curt Platt noted: “Each time we dance, it is a dedication to all the people who danced before us.”