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What is Shag Dancing?

 

famous teachers from Santa Barbara show off their style

My First Shag Dance teachers, Sylvia Sykes and Jonathan Bixby

British dancers not doubt get a kick out of the fact that what is slang for a four letter activity to them is the name of a dance to us. Three dances to be specific: Collegiate Shag, St Louis Shag, and Carolina Shag. The first two are more closely related to each other but still are quite different dances. Both originated in the 1920s as off-shoots of the Charleston, and both are usually (but not always) danced to fast music. They both look harder than they are, especially when speeded up. They both use a lot of physical energy and require stamina to get through the song. The basic step is completely different so if you were to take a class in each dance the difference would be obvious.

Here’s Valerie LaFemina and Mario Robau, more famous for their West Coast Swing, giving us a good example of St. Louis Shag:

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I learned St. Louis shag first. It was popular in my community about 20 years ago, but very few people do it here now. Like many dances, it had a brief heyday and people lost interest. Now, and for quite some time, it has been replaced by Collegiate Shag. I can’t explain why, and if if any of my local readers have an insight I’d be happy to hear it. I couldn’t find as joyful an example of St. Louis Shag as this delightful demo of Collegiate, so maybe it just inspires more fun and that’s why it’s more popular. Fans of St. Louis will disagree of course, so if any of you have a really great clip, please do send it my way.

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People who dance Balboa often also do Collegiate Shag. Shag is not difficult to learn (relatively speaking) but is physically tiring to do. Balboa, also usually danced to very fast music, is complex and hard to learn but not tiring and can be danced all night without breaking a sweat. Nope, can’t have both qualities in the same dance. You have to pick one. Here’s a look at Bal, and I’ll address that one more in another blog

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Carolina Shag is so different from the other two that it defies logic to give it the same name. You can see a wonderful demonstration of it in my last post, Veteran Dancers Make it Look Easy. Unlike the California state dance, West Coast Swing, which is danced all over the country, Carolina’s state dance is still largely a southern phenomenon. We’ve been introduced to it here in the west, but it hasn’t caught on. It’s a closer cousin to West Coast Swing than to it’s other namesakes. Dancer and dance historian Peter Loggins suggests the possibility that Collegiate Shag may have been the original Carolina Shag. Certainly it is not unheard of for a dance to change it’s style over the years so this is indeed possible. For more of Peter’s insights into the subject, click this link to Peter’s Shag Dance Blog.

And NONE of them have any connection to the British slang definition as far as I know. But if any of my readers have an insight to this curious coincidence, I’m all ears!

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Veteran Dancers Make it Look Easy

Charlie and Jackie dance carolina shag

carolina shag champion dancers Charlie Womble and Jackie McGee

When I write about older dancers I usually try to find dancers still wowing us in their 80s and 90s. Today I’m going to feature Charlie Womble and Jackie McGee, even though they’re only in their 60s. The reason is that I want to talk about the ease that comes with experience. You’ve heard the expression “They make it look easy.” when people talk about very good dancers. I would amend that to say, no, it doesn’t look easy but it looks as if it’s easy for them.

With age (if you started early enough) comes experience. With experience, eventually comes ease. When I go out dancing, I like to dance every dance. I don’t like to sit out dances unless I don’t like the song, and even then I kind of want to be on the floor. People are amazed that I have the energy to out dance people half my age and younger, but it’s not that I’m in better shape. I’m just more efficient. When you’ve been doing something long enough, your muscles figure out which of them are needed and the rest of them take a break.  When you’re new at it, every muscle in your body thinks it has to participate. New dancers just plain work harder and tire sooner. Of course, they get more exercise, so there’s a perk for every stage in the dance of life.

Jackie and Charlie are famous for Carolina Shag and there couldn’t be a better pair of ambassadors for any dance. If you had to find one word to capture what is amazing about them, (aside from “Wow!”) it would probably be “ease”. Every move uses the precise amount of energy necessary and not a jot more. They are completely relaxed and their dance is effortless.

There is no shortcut to having the element of ease in your dance. It only comes with experience. You can either put in a LOT of hours when you’re young, or just keep dancing until you turn gray. Or, like Charlie and Jackie, you can do both! And if you are lucky enough to find yourself in their neck of the woods, take advantage of the opportunity to learn from the masters and try your hand at Carolina Shag. Enjoy!
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by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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