SAVE THE LAST DANCE FOR ME: A Love Story of the Shag and the Society of Stranders. By Phil Sawyer and Tom Poland. University of South Carolina Press. 176 pages. $39.95.
It was a time like no other, and some of us are lucky enough to recall the exuberance of shag dancing in a pavilion at Ocean Drive Beach or Myrtle Beach’s Grand Strand.
Phil Sawyer and Tom Poland’s wistfully nostalgic yet brutally honest “Save the Last Dance for Me” is in no way a frivolous, honey-coated account of beach memories experienced by those who came of age in the 1950s and ’60s.
The authors’ meticulously researched history of the shag is a reminder that, social roadblocks and Jim Crow laws not withstanding, shagging greatly assisted in promoting cordial relationships between blacks and whites.
Also, the shag changed social mores by embracing the custom of making it acceptable for a woman to invite a man to dance, even a married man whose wife was present.
History has it that the shag is an amalgam of cultures: Its rhythm was transferred, mainly to South Carolina, by slaves. That rhythm melded with the lonesome blues that flowed up from Mississippi and, later, Chicago’s upbeat brand of the blues.
Most importantly, shagging allowed you to simply move to the rhythm, expressing whatever emotions and feelings were conjured by the surging music. Classic shag steps work best with a 4/4 beat, keeping your feet close to the floor. But if you want, you can include “mirror moves” such as the pivot, the boogie walk and the side step.
The dance also affected the state’s political climate as reverse segregation was practiced in the late 1950s, when white high school and college students were not allowed to dance with black groups that had reserved The Township Auditorium in Columbia.
By paying $3 a person, whites could sit in the balcony and watch black couples perform multiple versions of the shag. In 1984, Gov. Dick Riley signed a bill into law making the shag the official South Carolina dance and emphasizing its contributions to the state’s economy, education and recreation. It appeared the goal of jazz clubs — throughout the state, in Myrtle Beach or in Columbia, where the first Society of Stranders was organized — was for everyone to just have fun.
But the rise of the shag was not always fun.
Shagging was dubbed “race music,” as formal bands, led by luminaries such as Harry James, Glenn Miller and Les Brown, dominated the “white” music charts. Sawyer and Poland illustrate these dangerous times by naming Honea Path native Frank Beacham’s essay “This Magic Moment, When the Ku Klux Klan Tried to Kill Rhythm and Blues in South Carolina,” highlighting the way the Klan tried to keep whites from attending black-owned clubs. Beacham referred to Charlie’s Place, whose owner, Charlie Fitzgerald, had been arrested numerous times on trumped up charges.
Despite the damage inflicted by the Klan, dedicated dancers continued to support the SOS and also formed a second group, the Association of Shag Clubs.
After a few years of being considered passe, the interest in shag clubs made a comeback and today boasts a combined membership of 15,000, including many who make three annual pilgrimages a year to Ocean Drive or the Grand Strand to participate in contests and to see old friends.
Rather than merely creating a list of “golden oldies” and a collection of youth-oriented memories, Sawyer and Poland have produced a pulsating, vibrant document proving how the beach and the beat deserve a significant place in our nation’s cultural history.
Reviewer Dottie Ashley writes the column “Ashley on the Arts” for The Charleston Mercury.