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Fancy Footwork

Its exact origins may be obscure, but it's a fact that South Carolina's official state dance, the Carolina Shag, has deep roots in the Lowcountry. In the pre-Rock and Roll era, dance clubs up and down the South Carolina coast packed them in for nights of fancy footwork under the stars to the smooth, jazz and blues-inflected rhythms of what everyone called beach music.

The Shag's adaptability, from a simple six or eight-step pattern to a complicated array of quick shuffles and spins, most likely grew from the jitterbug and The Charleston craze of the 1920's. Those, in turn, were adapted from the dances brought to the Lowcountry by enslaved Africans.

"Shagging" was undoubtedly assimilated into mainstream culture during the first half of the twentieth-century, although in its mid-century heyday it was mostly confined to young, white enthusiasts who had "jumped the Jim Crow rope" by visiting Black dance clubs to watch and learn. As one "shagger" remembered, "We were totally integrated because the blacks and whites had nothing in our minds that made us think we were different. We loved music, we loved dancing, and that was the common bond between us." Ramshackle dance clubs, hastily constructed but always with a well-stocked bar and a resilient wooden floor, dotted the beaches of the coastal Carolinas by the late 1930's.

Shag Legend "Chicken" Hicks (left) and friends

With its air of illicit pleasure and the added benefit of adult disapproval, the Shag was soon popular enough to produce stars like Big George Linberry and "Chicken" Hicks, who smoothed out the initially jerky steps of what everyone called "fast dancing" and paired it with more laid-back, guitar-and-bass driven music. (One famous dance pavilion in Myrtle Beach, The Pad, installed outdoor walls to block the dance's risqué moves from prying eyes.) But by the 1960's, when the name "shag dancing" was first attached to give the dance its sexual undertones, the style had given way to other fads - the Mashed Potato, the Twist, the Locomotion, and others - spawned by rock and R&B music. Even more devastating was 1954's hurricane Hazel, which swept away many of the old dance pavilions for good.

But the dance's fans never totally died away, and by the 1970's it had stirred back to life in competitive dance circuits centered on the North Carolina coast. In 1984, it was named South Carolina's official state dance. And next month brings the National Shag Dance Championships in Myrtle Beach. But you don't have to travel that far to learn to shag. On March 4th, join the Southern Dance Party at Lake House, where expert Denise Hull will teach you all you need to know to keep the state dance alive and well.

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