North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is shag central. It’s where thousands gather year-round to partake in festivities featuring the Carolina shag dance. That’s not a surprise, though. The dance originated, blossomed and caught on like wildfire right there by the water in the 1940s and ‘50s. From its birth in an era of separation to its still thriving presence today, South Carolina’s cheerful state dance has been bringing people together for decades.
The Birth of Shag Dancing
The shag has many colorful descriptions ranging from “the swing dance of the South” to “the jitterbug on Quaaludes.” The jitterbug, which was the dance of choice at the time, was too fast for the R&B “beach music” played at the nightclubs local teenagers frequented. Lack of air conditioning also made it too hot for such fast dancing. Therefore, the shag is essentially a slowed-down version of the Lindy hop; the dancers subdued the jitterbug’s erratic movement to match the beach music’s relaxed tempo and from there, the Carolina shag was born.
Although there are some similarities between the shag and the jitterbug, the differences are considerable. For one, the styling is different; with shagging, the partners’ upper bodies are stable and controlled while the footwork is complicated and fast. Originally, the shag was focused on the male dancer, but that didn’t last long. Most of the free-spirited shaggers found it boring and restrictive, so it became much more common for the couple to do their own thing before meeting in a turn or spin.
The dance wasn’t always known by the same name. “Beach dancing,” “fas’ dancing” and “dirty shag” were all ways of referring to what we now call the Carolina shag. In 1984, the Carolina shag was named South Carolina’s official state dance and is widely practiced all over the country even today. The shag is an important part of Myrtle Beach’s heritage, and its historical impact was deeply profound.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, one would be hard-pressed to find music by black artists, known as “race music” at the time. This type of music was rarely played on the radio, and the records featuring it had to be specially bought. However, the new R&B style was popular among the young people of Myrtle Beach and became known as “beach music.” Teenagers of all races flocked to nightclubs and “juke joints” to dance. Beach music was primarily played in black nightclubs, but that didn’t stop white teenagers from joining the celebrations. It brought everyone together for nights of fun and camaraderie.
Charlie’s Place was one such nightclub. In fact, it was arguably the most popular and definitely the most notorious. Owned by Charlie Fitzgerald and his wife, Sarah, Charlie’s Place was located on the Hill—the African American section of town. Though Jim Crow laws were still enforced in this era, the club was always packed with white and black dancers alike.
Charlie’s is even considered by some to be the birthplace of the shag. Charlie’s Place was founded in the 1930s and existed until the ’60s. In 2017, the city put a plan in motion to preserve the building and repurpose it as a community center and museum.
However, the story of shag dancing isn’t just beach music and unity: the flouting of Jim Crow laws was met with hostility from the local Ku Klux Klan. The Klan insisted that Sarah Fitzgerald was a white woman and that Charlie’s patrons were violating segregation laws. Thomas L. Hamilton, the Grand Dragon of the South Carolina Klan, led a brigade of his members through the Hill in a 26-vehicle procession, led by a car sporting a glowing cross.
Most of the residents were terrified, locking themselves inside and praying for the parade of hatred to pass. However, one vocalized the displeasure they all felt. The brave resident phoned the police to deliver a threat: if the KKK returned to the Hill, there would be violence. When the KKK caught wind of the threat, they returned for vengeance and targeted Charlie. Upon their arrival, he was standing on the porch of his establishment with a weapon. He never fired. The mob wrestled the gun from him and beat him severely; then, they destroyed his furniture and rained bullets down on his nightclub.
Only one KKK member was injured: a South Carolinian police officer named James Daniel Johnston, who was hit by a stray bullet. Though his fellow Klan members abandoned him and Charlie on the side of the road, a passerby took Johnston to the hospital where he later died. Charlie survived his injuries and would eventually make a full recovery.
At first, the police did nothing, but the media wouldn’t be silenced. After five days of pressure, Horry County’s Sheriff C. E. Sasser began to investigate furiously. Charlie was arrested but soon cleared. Thomas Hamilton was arrested and charged with inciting a riot. His robe and a 16-ft. bullwhip was confiscated and 10 more klansmen were arrested by the end of the week.
Shag Dancing Today
Shag dancing is still a common pastime. South Carolina isn’t the only state that is home to dancers. In fact, the Society of Stranders (SOS) hosts shag migrations three times a year. Thousands of people flock to North Myrtle Beach from all over the country in September, January and April. Events are held at shag clubs all over North Myrtle Beach; Fat Harold’s Beach Club and Ocean Drive Shag Club are two of the most popular, but others include Duck’s Night Life and the OD Pavilion. There is also a Shagger’s Hall of Fame, which features entries from 1983 to 2019 and includes a category for posthumous winners.
The National Shag Dance Championship is held annually. Every March, competitors flock to North Myrtle Beach to participate in the Feather Award-winning contest named the best U.S. swing dance event. It was founded in the city in 1984 and has six divisions: professional, junior I, junior II, seniors, masters and non-pro. Both division and overall winners are selected; in 2019, the overall winners were Sydney and Sam West from the professional division. The NSDC also offers the Beth Mitchell Memorial Scholarship—a monetary prize gifted to a deserving student who has or whose family has competed in the contest.
Beach music is still enjoyed widely, and listening to it is listening to history. Significant bands like the Catalinas and the Embers were founded back in the ’50s at the height of the beach music craze. Over 60 members have joined and left the Catalinas and they still perform. Brothers Gary, Johnny and Lynn Barker are three of the founding members and are still part of the band alongside new additions Dwight Nichols, Barry Duke, Jody Rumple and Angela Resignalo. Johnny Barker also founded the Embers, which established its own prestige. The band is referred to as a musical institution and was inducted into the South Carolina Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame and the South Carolina Beach Music Hall of Fame. There’s even a radio station dedicated to beach music called Pat Gwinn at the Beach.
The Carolina shag is indescribably unique—a dance that has endured decades of shifting times, race relations and mercurial tastes, still managing to remain near and dear to the hearts of many. Its rich history and significant cultural importance will never be forgotten, and shaggers all over the world will always have a place at Myrtle Beach.