1 of 2
Shaggin’ on the Cooper
Dancers young and old keep the beach-music tradition alive at monthly summertime shag dances at Mount Pleasant Pier.
Photo by Mic Smith
2 of 2
They love beach music
DJ Jim Bowers spins beach-music favorites at the dances on both Folly Beach Pier (pictured) and Mount Pleasant Pier. Occasionally, he hits the dance floor with friend Kae Harper Childs, a longtime shag instructor. Get Harper’s tips, below, for the best shagging etiquette on the dance floor.
Photo by Mic Smith
Beach music floods the air from outdoor speakers, mingling with seagull squawks and the low rumble of boat motors. It’s a gorgeous night for shagging outside, with a red-orange sun sinking over the Cooper River and a soft, salty breeze blowing across the Mount Pleasant Pier.
So far, the parquet dance floor set up at the end of the pier is empty. But that’s about to change—dramatically. When the clock strikes 8, the last strains of the Embers’ recording of “I Love Beach Music” fade out, and the Charleston-based Hot Pepper Band cranks up a live version of “Carolina Girls.”
“Are you ready to have some fun?” lead singer Bill Driskell roars into his mic. “Come on, you shaggers!”
In mere seconds, the collected shaggers, whose feet have been shuffling dance steps under their chairs, swarm the floor, corner to corner. Three glorious hours of Shaggin’ on the Cooper has commenced.
The Saturday-night Shaggin’ on the Cooper events—and their sister series, Friday Night Boogies, also on Mount Pleasant Pier, and Moonlight Mixers on Folly Beach Pier—have become summertime rituals for Lowcountry shaggers and visiting travelers. Hosted by Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission, these outdoor dances pack the piers once a month, April through September, with old and new shaggers.
“A live band and a chance to dance for $10—what a deal!” says Woody Grantham of Mount Pleasant, who, with wife Stephanie, parked their camp chairs at the edge of the parquet to be one of the first couples on the floor.
You wouldn’t know it from their smooth, well‑practiced steps and turns, but the Granthams are relative latecomers to South Carolina’s state dance. Just a few years ago, they took lessons at a local studio so they could shag dance together in their retirement years. With that, they joined decades of devoted S.C. shaggers—people who love the shag and gravitate anywhere they can shuffle, pivot, belly roll, boogie walk or otherwise keep their shag steps in shape.
“If you grew up here, that’s what you’re supposed to do,” says Jim Bowers, a DJ for many of the CCPRC shag events.
The group of 20 or so friends from one Mount Pleasant neighborhood who arrived together in April for the season’s first Shaggin’ on the Cooper, all ready to dance, would agree. “We grew up in South Carolina, so we know how to shag,” says Nancy Hancock, with dance partner Alden Sweatman. “We’re old, but we have a good time!”
Shag on the beach
Stamped on S.C. history and culture, shag dancing—and its partner, beach music, the state’s official popular music—emerged along the coast in the ’50s and ’60s, at piers and pavilions where young people gathered to hear live bands or play their favorite tunes on the jukebox. The dance evolved as a mellowed-out cousin to the more high-energy jitterbug and Lindy Hop dancing popular in other parts of the country.
Tom Ilderton’s family had a house about a block away from the old Folly Beach Pier in the 1940s (the original pier burned down in 1977; the current pier replaced it in 1995). He remembers hanging out at the pier as young as 12 or 13, back when it attracted big-name bands like the Tams, the Drifters, Fats Domino and Chubby Checker, much to the delight of youngsters learning to shag on the beach, just as the Embers describe it, with the salt in the air and the sand at their feet.
“The old pier had a jukebox, and people would dance to the jukebox, but on the weekends, the big bands came,” says Ilderton. “I didn’t go to the concerts—the tickets were too expensive. But you could hear them out on the beach.”
Now Ilderton and wife Janice, from Charleston, are among the regulars at the monthly Moonlight Mixers at Folly, still shagging like they did as teens. Crowds at both the Folly and Mount Pleasant dances include plenty of experienced shaggers like the Ildertons, reliving old memories.
“Folly Pier in the 1960s was very popular—a lot of people would go out there to dance,” says Matt Rosebrock, festival and event coordinator for CCPRC. When the new Folly Pier was built, locals lobbied the recreation commission to let them shag out there. The shaggers now flocking to the CCPRC dances, he says, “want to get out on the pier the way it was in 1965.”
“I was dancing out the old pier with my dad when I was 7 years old,” recalls 71-year-old Joyce Weeks of Ravenel during a break from dancing with partner Larry Herring, 77, at the first Folly Pier mixer of the season. “I couldn’t sleep the last few nights, I’ve been so excited about this. We have to wait all winter for this!”
Just count to six
With so many lifelong shaggers in attendance, you’ll see plenty of impressive footwork at the Folly and Mount Pleasant dances. But these public events attract all ages and experience levels, including newcomers just getting their feet wet in the state dance.
“Ever since we learned the shag was the state dance here, we’ve been looking forward to trying it,” says Ken Garber, who recently moved to Mount Pleasant from Maryland with his wife, Kelli. At their first Shaggin’ on the Cooper, they are fast figuring out how to adapt the Lindy Hop they learned in their home state to the slower, looser shag.
Seventeen-year-old Clare McLaurin is working hard to coach her non-shagging friend Collin Cheatle, also 17, through the basic steps, spiced up with some pretzel twists. Though he describes his preferred moves as “freestyle club dancing,” Cheatle is confident he’ll master the shag before the evening is over.
Shagging is a six-count dance, and the counting is helpful for newbies; it helps them nail the basic steps, which is all they need to get on the dance floor, says Kae Harper Childs, an Isle of Palms resident, lifelong shagger and popular shag instructor at the University of South Carolina.
“It’s one-and-two, three-and-four, five, six, and the five is the number we linger on just a bit,” says Childs, who has teamed with Bowers to lead shag workshops. “Once you learn the basic, you can shag with anyone.”
Burns Yodice, 23, is among the younger dancers on the floor but one of the more accomplished. He comes to many of the CCPRC dances without a partner and finds plenty of people willing to dance when he gets there. The Mount Pleasant native had never shagged before attending USC; he took a couple of shag classes, loved it and continues to pick up new moves by watching other shaggers.
“The fluidity of it is fun for me,” Yodice says. “It’s all about flow.”
A heritage thing
Bowers, a beach music DJ for 35 years and a member of the S.C. Shag Hall of Fame, believes everyone in South Carolina should know at least the basic six-count step. “We should at least try to make it known that it’s part of the culture of the state,” Bowers says. “It’s kind of a heritage thing.”
He sorts the shaggers in attendance into three loose groups: “One, I call the college boppers; they like to bop around a lot, lots of twirls and spins,” with more freestyle moves that may not look exactly like traditional shagging, he says. “You have the old beach shaggers, who grew up doing it but never really learned it formally. And then you’ve got the professional people, who go to the shag clubs and maybe even compete.”
The vibe differs, too, at the two venues. Jutting out from the crisp, manicured surroundings of Memorial Waterfront Park, Mount Pleasant Pier offers a smooth dance surface with its portable dance floor and plenty of room for a live band and big crowd of dancers. At laid-back Folly, the pier stretches out over the sandy beach and ocean waves; the wind is brisker, the dance surface is weather-worn wooden planks, and DJ Bowers spins the tunes. It’s a little more intimate and come-as-you-are.
But the same shag culture reigns at both—a comfortable community of folks enjoying the same pastime, welcoming all shag styles and skills, accepting invitations to shag from friends and strangers.
Marlene Stagnaro of West Ashley, who came to Shaggin’ on the Cooper with friends from her shag club in Charleston, ended up dancing with a new acquaintance, Robert Morrison, also of West Ashley, who came out to meet some buddies. “I just met him,” Stagnaro says as they finish their dance. “In shag, there’s no boundaries. Husbands dance with other wives, people dance with friends—it doesn’t matter. That’s just how shagging is.”
Under the night sky at Folly Pier, Kevin Arnold finds himself partnered with a fairly new shagger, so he talks her through the next few steps, offering tips on how to follow his lead. Members of Berkeley Electric Cooperative, Arnold and his wife, Beth, took shag lessons together after he retired from the U.S. Navy. They look for opportunities to shag several times a week and are happy to help newcomers trying to learn.
“Don’t worry about other people looking at you—there’s not one set way to shag,” Arnold advises. “Everybody’s just here to have fun.
“The biggest thing I tell them is relax. You’re out here over the ocean, you’ve got the beach and the waves, and it’s South Carolina—you can’t beat that.”
Kae Harper Childs, a shagger since her Greenville High School days, is now an Isle of Palms resident and a popular shag instructor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. She has been teaching people to shag for more than 30 years in clubs, churches and schools across the state. In her USC classes, her two instructional DVDs and her shag workshops, Childs makes sure to instruct new shaggers with tips on proper shag etiquette.
Here are some of Childs’ top tips:
- If you’re on the dance floor, don’t just stand there: dance. “There’s not room on the floor for anything but dancing,” Childs says.
- Don’t be shy; be the first one on the dance floor. If one couple starts, others will follow.
- Get in your slot and stay there. Shag is a slotted dance, meaning the partners stick to a roughly rectangular dance space directly across from each other, so they aren’t bumping into other couples. Even when making turns or twists beyond the basic steps, the partners always return to their slot.
- Never say no. Shag culture encourages dancing with different partners and welcoming all dancers, regardless of experience level. So if somebody asks you to dance, give that new partner a try.
- Focus on your partner, not yourself, and do what makes it easier for your partner to lead or follow.
- Always say something positive to your partner after dancing together. “Everybody dancing is trying to do their best,” she says.
Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission holds monthly events in each of its three shag series during the summer. Moonlight Mixers are held one Friday a month at Folly Beach Pier, 101 East Arctic Ave., Folly Beach. Friday Night Boogie and Shaggin’ on the Cooper (on Fridays and Saturdays, respectively) are each held once a month at Mount Pleasant Pier, 71 Harry Hallman Blvd., Charleston. Admission is $10. For details, visit charlestoncountyparks.com or call (843) 795-4386.