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The infinite shag 

Landlocked and in penny loafers, shag enthusiasts keep the beat moving

click to enlarge Steve Rogers, a shag enthusiast, kicks up his heels to The Holiday Band in Burlington. - PHOTO BY LISSA GOTWALS
  • Photo by Lissa Gotwals
  • Steve Rogers, a shag enthusiast, kicks up his heels to The Holiday Band in Burlington.
She smiles wide, bobbing her head to the beat and holding a tray of takeout, standing outside of Shorty's, a sports bar and hangout next door to Chapel Hill music haven Local 506, peering through a window. The band wears Hawaiian shirts and dress shoes, and headset microphones that look showy, relative to the typical West Franklin Street bar band. All around, TVs flicker with sports, fighting for space between neon signs. This could be any bar.

But the woman's look says it all: Are the people inside really twirling each other around and shuffling their feet to an old Temptations cover? In a sports bar? In Chapel Hill?

She doesn't realize that, inside, there's a beach music show under way in the Southern Part of Heaven known more for an arms-crossed, hipster non-dance crowd than a full-fledged jitterbug offshoot. She's peeking into the world of Carolina Shag, an unofficial collective of 50 shag clubs statewide. The music and dance tradition is especially vital here in the Piedmont, and several of its most loyal proponents are here, dancing away on a Tuesday night. They're not only moving their feet and grinning wide, but they're also helping to keep this uniquely Carolina tradition alive.

The people inside constitute a piece of an intricate lattice of word-of-mouth promotion that keeps shag going in the North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, the three core states of the shag world. As the rest of the country's shag admirers look on in envy, North Carolina shaggers revel in their brother- (and sister-) hood here. It even has its own day. Shag enthusiast and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall started the Beach Music Day two years ago, hosting a giant concert celebration in downtown Raleigh. The pride can be sported, too, with a Shag Tag license plate--an "I'd rather be shagging" inscription atop a pair of penny loafers. For a dance craze and musical culture that started before television kicked in, Carolina Shag is doing very well, thank you.

click to enlarge Instructor June Arthurs and shagger Steve Rogers share a laugh after class at Shorty's in Chapel Hill. - PHOTO BY LISSA GOTWALS
  • Photo by Lissa Gotwals
  • Instructor June Arthurs and shagger Steve Rogers share a laugh after class at Shorty's in Chapel Hill.
Carolina Shag is not to be confused with its West Coast approximation. This shag is as Carolinian as pulled pig and ACC basketball. Like any musical culture, it's a scene that knows peaks and valleys, but places like new venue Shorty's in Chapel Hill or mainstay Loafers in Raleigh are trying to bring it to new people and, more importantly, new people to it. The survival of shag, long after the dance-floor expiration of its audience, is a story best told here, more than two hours away from the first glimpse of coastline.

The current generation of shaggers has either enjoyed the music all their lives and grew up doing the dance, or they have entered over time through R&B-infused beach music. The shag started in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., in the late '40s, when race records--essentially, black R&B and swing--were first being played on the radio to the delight of white teenagers and the bewilderment of their parents. Some landmarks of North Myrtle's seminal Ocean Drive remain, like Fat Harold's and Ducks, together a veritable mecca for shag clubs across the country that make pilgrimages there for the annual Society of Stranders (SOS) party.

In Fat Harold's front room, photos of flashy shaggers of the past cover the walls like shingles, insulating the room with tiles of warm faces, an evolving, highly populated memory lane. Circular emblems for shag clubs, the regional cells of shag culture that host events for dancers in small towns, line the rooms. Landlocked locales like North Wilkesboro, Burlington and Monroe all get their spot. Scoreboard Grill in Pittsboro, a long-standing Piedmont club, lays claim to one of the more prominent emblems, just above the Harold's entrance.

click to enlarge The Holiday Band doesn't shy away from interacting with the patrons, or each other, at 3 Thirty 3 Sports Bar in Burlington. - PHOTO BY LISSA GOTWALS
  • Photo by Lissa Gotwals
  • The Holiday Band doesn't shy away from interacting with the patrons, or each other, at 3 Thirty 3 Sports Bar in Burlington.
This culture, obviously, runs deep on history and heritage. To learn the story behind the steps of shag's inland empire and coastal creation requires an able guide. Such is Steve Rogers: By day, Rogers prints publications in the small press shop at the School of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill, coincidentally the same department that produces the guidebook for notaries public in North Carolina, commissioned by Secretary Marshall's office. He also runs a taxidermy service.

But anyone who knows Rogers very well knows he is a shagger, first and foremost. He attends shows and dance lessons about every week, a top-notch enthusiast obsessed with things like new dance steps or collections of regional beach band albums. He's a sturdy man, too, with frosty hair styled just so. But his demeanor--that of a genteel, good time kind of guy who loves to dance more than anything in the world--is emblematic of the beach music vibe.

The bug first bit Rogers when he was a kid in Alamance County. When he thinks about nights in the years after AM radio started reaching out to a younger audience by playing rhythm and blues, his eyes glow like a lamp's mantle, stumbling over words as they spill happily from his mouth. His gestures become dramatic, like an evangelist imparting a parable: "You would go to bed with your transistor radio. You'd put it on your pillow, up against your ear, listening. When you woke up, your batteries were dead."

These stories abound among devout shaggers, rites of passage to a genuine love of the dance and its lifestyle. It is a code that is gradually learned. Rogers continued learning with his teen-age band, The Night Riders, who released a full-length record in 1967 on Justice Records, Introducing ... The Night Riders, now a collectible to garage rock record fiends. The band was a holdout for straight soul and beach-sounding bands. For them, the British Invasion might as well have never happened. They even played some country to widen their audience. Rogers cracks a grin about the concessions made by his high school troupe just to play: "To keep our parents happy, we weren't allowed to play anywhere that served alcohol," he says.

On the cover of their record, the Night Riders are packed into a yacht-sized convertible in suits, ties and short hair, as apple-pie American as doo-wop groups and the squeaky clean Beach Boys from the left coast. After all, beach music and shag survive today on the same undercurrent of conservative musical tastes, a catholic devotion to a particular slice of party music. The comfort zone that the music--from the O'Kaysions' "Girl Watcher" to Chairmen of the Board's classic "(Give Me) Just a Little More Time"--allows its fans nostalgia for the easy-going life of the '50s and the '60s pinnacle of R&B. As R&B begat saltier tastes like hard rock, rap and metal, the shaggers became more polarized towards their own sound, now broadly dubbed beach music.

Likewise, the Night Riders played the popular hits of their time, the type written by white kids enamored of black R&B and early rock 'n' roll artists--"Good Lovin'," "Louie Louie," "Little Latin Lupe Lu." One of their favorites, "Double Shot (of My Baby's Love)" by the Swingin' Medallions, was a bridge between the Pacific Northwest frat-rock scene and the Southern beach music crowd. Rogers remembers shagging to it plenty himself.

But his progression to beach-music fanatic is a reflection of the way close-knit friends keep the scene alive in North Carolina, and how it must cross barriers of age and geography to survive. Shag supporters, band members and radio jocks are a do-it-yourself set, much like the punks on the other side of the spectrum, creating record covers on the fly, booking gigs, and getting people to show up by simply spreading the word, all outside the realm of viral marketing or MP3 blogging. Beach music even has its own award, the Cammy, and a movement to petition for a Grammy is under way. Sometimes the crowds come in droves, sometimes hardly at all. After all, Rogers says, audiences in this state are spoiled. Access to beach music and shagging is just too easy.

click to enlarge The Holiday Band doesn't shy away from interacting with the patrons, or each other, at 3 Thirty 3 Sports Bar in Burlington. - PHOTO BY LISSA GOTWALS
  • Photo by Lissa Gotwals
  • The Holiday Band doesn't shy away from interacting with the patrons, or each other, at 3 Thirty 3 Sports Bar in Burlington.

Back at Shorty's, for instance, the Holiday Band is revving up for a spare but involved audience of a couple dozen. The husky blues voice of the band is Mike Taylor, a silver-bearded veteran who knows hitting the right notes alone won't do it for a beach music group. "In this business, we don't call ourselves musicians," he says. "We call ourselves entertainers."

The band works the crowd by walking the floor, chatting them up between numbers. There is an intimacy between band and audience. When an errant dancer needs a partner, Mike Neese, a Holiday Band singer, takes advantage of his cordless microphone and takes her for a dance. Members of the Piedmont's shag stronghold are here, from a well-regarded dance instructor to Cathy Cash, who co-owns both Scoreboard and Shorty's with her husband, Shorty himself.

In this largely first-name-basis community, it would be easy to be afraid of being an interloper in a room of people so familiar with each other and so into the dance they've gathered to do. Even the Shorty's bartender recognizes most of the dancers.

Underground scenes tend towards exclusivity by their nature, and the shag community certainly isn't a staple of the mainstream. This clique is hugely inclusive, though, welcoming and eager to add to their ranks if someone shows genuine interest in the dance. Sure, some may be on a first-name basis, as these folks cherish each other's company, but it's also what's absent that defines the community for them--no negative vibes, no angst, no overbearing volumes. For those reasons, the good vibrations of the shag continue to draw a new crowd. Tonight, a younger Latino man in jeans and a collared shirt works on steps with a partner on the duct-taped floor near some dart boards. The 60-plus-year-old dance still appeals to both youthful and diverse audiences.

After all, the dance's easy-going atmosphere fosters friendship and camaraderie. Rogers recounts dozens of connections he has among fellows shaggers, from his old high school band's days up to the people he's dancing with tonight. For many of them, learning shag was part of becoming an adult, a chance to meet people in the same Southern situation.

"Parents pass it on, too, because they take the kids with them," says DJ Mike Lewis, a jolly man often seen in large colorful glasses and a hat, "because they didn't want to get a babysitter."

"Once the bug bites ya..," June Arthurs says of shag's no-cure infectiousness. Arthurs is co-instructor of shag lessons at both Shorty's and its sister club in Pittsboro, Scoreboard Grill. She remembers her mother teaching lessons at an Arthur Murray school, a national dance instruction company, and learning "in her Dad's arms." She's a lithe dancer, too, a petite woman with a big grin and an instant charm. Her dexterous footwork and weight-shifting turns led her to the top 10 at the Shag Grand Nationals competition this year. She even danced with one of the so-called original "bad boys" of shag. Now in their 60s, that cast of beach music rebels still gets respect. "They were the kind that would roll their cigarettes up in their sleeve back then," she remembers.

Arthurs loves shag, and she works to make it thrive. But she can't do it alone. The people at lessons like this help: Rogers goes to her lessons in Pittsboro weekly and boasts of her expert work to fellow dancers. When those new recruits don't show at her lessons, he jokes that he'll be nagging them soon.

Two of Arthurs' current regulars, Cathy and Jim Shuping of Durham, only started learning in November, but she's already teaching them complex steps like the wobbly-kneed "Elvis." They are a portion of the required group shag has had to reach to live beyond its core of self-described old schoolers. Under Arthurs' tutelage, that's possible: After a few pointers from her and co-instructor Larry Patterson, the basic--the eight-step backbone of the shag--becomes a breeze for the neophyte.

Even veterans bemoan Arthurs' and Patterson's dance floor ease; seated nearby, Rogers enviously observed Patterson's loose, sweeping steps, the sign of a great shagger, "See, look how limber Larry is." Cathy explains it giddily: "When you dream at night about new steps, you know you've got the fever." That attitude keeps this dance alive.

click to enlarge Student Kathy Shuping and instructor Lenn Daman try out a new move as June Arthurs and Jim Shuping look on. - PHOTO BY LISSA GOTWALS
  • Photo by Lissa Gotwals
  • Student Kathy Shuping and instructor Lenn Daman try out a new move as June Arthurs and Jim Shuping look on.

The busiest gigging bands--Chairmen of the Board, The Embers, The Holiday Band, Band of Oz and The Coastline Band among them--play a key role in keeping the music alive, too. They gig tirelessly, from clubs and private parties to huge festivals, taking on both old standards and originals, operating solely to move the crowd. In a second set at Shorty's, The Holiday Band launches into some tight, funky numbers, adding sax and horns to choreographed stage moves before moving into Prince's "Kiss."

Mike Taylor has seen different shades of the shag scene over the years, including a monumental show when The Holiday Band played a Lincoln Center concert and 500 attendees paid to take shag lessons. But he says it always comes back to one thing: "Shaggers like dead black harmonica-player bands." Places like Loafers, which Rogers calls a "customer-friendly place with a good dance floor" with more of an over-35 crowd, even leans more towards bluesy bands and harmonica-playing bands, a typical variation on the beach band scene.

In fact, it can be argued that there are no "beach music bands" because most party bands don't exclusively play beach music. If shag can be said to have a defining characteristic, it's a rhythmic range just above and below 120 beats per minute. The drummer must drop into that rhythmic pocket and stay there for the maximum "shagability," a common element of groups playing this music. But bands like Taylor's find a sense of self-expression, too, plying the supple three-chord boogie, he says. "We know we're not playing Beethoven or Mozart. But it's a great way for a musician to keep doing what he loves, playing music that's stood a half a century."

During that period, beach music bands in Carolina have thrived playing private functions, especially college parties. No one knows this territory like Norman "General" Johnson and his Chairmen of the Board. Even now, they play parties booked by student groups, second-generation shaggers whose parents might have danced to the Chairmen on the same floor. Tradition and familiarity rule the night here.

"We perform with a youthfulness and try to cover subject matter that they enjoy," Johnson says. Johnson found success in this region accidentally after being a sought-after songwriter in the Holland-Dozier-Holland hit factory. He figured that they were already writing what people in the Carolinas considered beach music. He set up shop here, and now crowds outside of the region constantly request one of the group's best-known songs, "Carolina Girl."

Mike Taylor recalls an attractive Carolina girl approaching a then-member of The Holiday Band at one of those UNC-Chapel Hill gigs, asking "Didn't you play with Band of Oz?" As he beamed at the recognition, she followed with the deflating "My mom loves y'all!" Though this scenario echoes the distance of age, she was still there, dancing away at their show.

The Longbranch, a club in Raleigh which many folks assume caters exclusively to country and western tastes, brings in some of the heaviest hitters in beach music at least twice a month. Big crowds turn out. The crowds get especially young if the band recentlty performed at nearby N.C. State. Sometimes the age mixture of the crowd just depends on the band. "Band of Oz draws a college following because of the band's younger members," says Rogers, a veritable guidebook to the state's shag spots. "Craig Woolard Band and Embers both get younger folks, too."

Darren Hunnicutt, who spins as DJ One Duran, plays drum and bass and hip-hop for pleasure at clubs including Hell and Tallulas, but has worked the college circuit, too. "Plenty of frat boys and their ladies find it to be about the only music in their comfort zone for dancing. We're talking about the blue blazer, khakis-and loafers-with-optional-bow tie set here, as well as the dudes who one minute request Chamillionaire [a Houston hip-hop group] and the next are shagging with the best of 'em. But that's why they enjoy it, because they know how to dance to this, but not to Nelly."

Radio keeps the music in shaggers' homes even now, via live and syndicated shows presented by long-time DJs like WBAG 1150 AM's Gailes Stuckey and WPCM 920 AM's Ed Weiss, better known as "Charlie Brown." In 1959, Weiss moved to Chapel Hill from Virginia, when he says he was "watching guys dancing with doorknobs," learning their steps. "Young people now pick it up," he says. "At Loafers in Raleigh, when they bring some old R&B guy like Floyd Dixon in, the audience is mixed between salt-and-peppered and college kids. Those kids can't know who he is, but there they are."

In 1980, Chapel Hill DJ Mike Lewis dropped the needle on the biggest inroad to the beach music scene when he played "Mess O' Blues" by country artist Delbert McClinton at a gig. Country fans who did not embrace black R&B found a way in through McClinton. June Arthurs said her husband, John, started shagging because of this leap, too. Lewis says it had become "anything I could make fit the dance. I used to put my thumb on the record to slow it down."

Crossover is crucial, too: General Johnson has collaborated with several artists of different stripes over the years. He worked with the less-than-politically correct David Allan Coe and, sparked by a meeting at a songwriter's convention at the Bottom Line in New York, with the late punk icon Joey Ramone. Ramone was a notoriously huge fan of early American R&B and the Phil Spector, Brill-building sound.

"His mother was there, and gave me a big bear hug. That was the first song that he had performed that, at her age, she could really understand," says Johnson, who recorded a mesh of his "On the Beach" and the Ramones' "Rockaway Beach" with Joey. "We became big good friends."

Re-imagined for an audience that grew up with indie pop and groups indebted to The Ramones, beach music and the shag could catch on in another revival like Western swing dancing did years ago, where 20- and 30-somethings set aside a night for shag lessons instead of trivia or karaoke. The secrets of the loafers will be passed on, within the inner sanctum of shag here in the Carolinas, regardless of popularity. And shaggers in the Piedmont do have their fountain of energy: Regardless of their age or creed, shaggers and their favorite bands eventually all end up at the beach.

click to enlarge The Holiday Band gets the crowd on the floor at 3 Thirty 3 Sports Bar in Burlington. - PHOTO BY LISSA GOTWALS

The choppy waters at Carolina Beach swell with foam as they kiss a plastic orange barrier, strung the length of the shore. The skies are slate gray, and intermittent rain splashes down on the sand. But a sign announces "This area closed for event," and the weather is doing little to interrupt the crowd at the Carolina Beach Music Festival. The Band of Oz is running through its set. Singer, Scott Fine calls out in a booming baritone to those seated in lawn chairs to get up and "dance with us." A festival worker grins, "They say they shag in the sand."

Their dance floor is a stretched flat of plywood nestled in sand. The most casual dancers--those who might even bend their knees (what Mike Lewis jokingly calls the "Duke Dip," not the shag)--sing along. Tom Brooks, a retiree here from Atlanta, is in the state just for the festival. "Thing is," he says, "when you get down below the Carolinas where we are, there's nothing in terms of seeing this music live."

Brooks pops up later that day at the Cape Fear Shag Club, his skin now a deep butterscotch. His wife pulled him to see the nearby professional dance contest. He had rather been at the live Coastline Band show down the street. The pressure cooker of the professional round got to him: "I mean, people should be able to dance how they feel, and not be nervous. But here I am being nervous among all these hardcore shaggers."

It was easy to see why. Everyone was circling the dance floor, crowned by a single mirrored ball. Dancers with numbers pinned to their backs slid gracefully across the floor. Such dance contests are a nexus for beach music bands and shaggers, a collection of like-minded enthusiasts together at last. It keeps them going.

It keeps people like Steve Rogers going, too, he admits. He talks of increasing the fold back home by encouraging new dancers, and he already looks forward to the next SOS, where close to 15,000 shag zealots will assemble in North Myrtle.: "I always say, 'You get 50, and you try to feel your youth again.'"

Thanks to people like Rogers, shag is finding continued youth, too, right here near its cradle.

The dates and the dance: An introduction to shag

"The Shag took off in the '40s when Southerners went North and tried the Northern dances, the Jitterbug and Big Apple, at places like the Savoy in New York. Few could do it, so they brought the music back home with them and slowed down the dance. During this time, that kind of black music couldn't even be played on the radio here in North Carolina."--DJ Mike Lewis

Although it is sometimes disputed, most enthusiasts believe the shag emerged from North Myrtle Beach, S.C. Through radio exposure in its infancy, and the rise of "beach bands" in subsequent years, shag and beach music spread quickly from the East Coast.

Here are some notable dates for Carolina Shag culture, as well as distinguishing features of the original Carolina style:

  • 1945: R&B records end up on jukeboxes at the shore. The music spreads to teenagers and college kids via AM radio.
  • 1977:Beach music bands incorporate "The Shag" when The Embers' "I Love Beach Music" mentions the term.
  • 1980: DJ Mike Lewis rewrites the definition of a Shag-able beach music song when he plays "Mess O' Blues" by Delbert McClinton at a show.
  • Present: Beach music begins to finds listeners through Internet radio and Web sites.

Terms to move

  • The Basic: The eight-step foundation of the dance, made of loose footwork, while the upper body remains still.
  • Mirror Moves: The pattern of crosses, pivots, kicks and turns that shaggers personalize, like the sugar foot, the boogie walk and the flirty belly roll.

Dance to the Web

Dance to the club

  • Loafers Beach Club, 3914 Atlantic Ave., Raleigh, 872-5335, www.loafersbeachclub.com
  • The Longbranch, 600 Creekside Drive, Raleigh, 829-1125, www.longbranchsaloon.com
  • Scoreboard Hometown Grill & Bar, 58 Hillsborough St., Pittsboro, 542-0376
  • Shorty's Grill & Bar, 504 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, 932-9941

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