by Erin Thursby
Each Wednesday a group of dancers get together at Cuba Libre, dancing to the Drifters, Otis Williams and Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs. They dance to R&B music that was popular in the 40s through the 60s. They are the shag dancers of Jacksonville.
Tony Gonzalez, President of the First Coast Shag Club, explains the origins of shag: “It comes from the lindy hop, jitterbug and dances from the 50s. The South, they kind of slow it down, so it’s a slowed down version of swing dancing.”
The music, termed “Beach Music,” often follows a 4/4 blues shuffle structure. Many, but not all songs are about the beach, which can lead to obscure vintage b-sides. Although you might think the Beach Boys are the obvious choice for Beach Music, according to Gonzalez, they’re in the Surfing Music genre and they’re just not bluesy enough. Beach Music, he says “is a kind of groove you get in.”
Originally from the Carolinas (it’s called the Carolina shag for a reason) the style of dancing spread throughout the South.
The simplicity of shag dancing is one of the appeals. It’s a six step count that sticks to a straight line. It doesn’t go all over the place (like the jitterbug) and it doesn’t take up a lot of space (like swing). Dancers move in a straight line. This economy of movement might be because the dance originated in tiny beach shacks and pavilions filled to the brim with shag dancers.
The base dance is easy enough for beginners to learn, but there are enough variations that experienced shaggers can layer more involved dance stylings on that simple base.
Gonzalez says that personal adaptation is one of the reasons he and a lot of other folks love shag.
“Once you learn the basic steps you can put your own little style to it. Everybody doesn’t dance the same…You put your personal style to the shag.”
Because it’s not as athletically demanding as swing, it attracts older folks. Most of the shaggers here in Jacksonville are 40 or older, but like swing, they’re beginning to build a younger base.
Since its advent in the 90s, the First Coast Shag Club has been growing. It experienced a recent coup when it won the opportunity to host the Association of Carolina Shag Clubs’ 2009 Summer Workshop at the Wyndham Jacksonville Riverwalk, July 10-12. The event will actually be a giant party called Shaggin’ on the St. Johns. There will be Beach Music, shag instruction, dance vendors, special activities and even a riverboat dance cruise.
Those who are curious about the shag dancing phenomenon in Jacksonville can visit the club’s website at www.firstcoastshag.com or they can head to Cuba Libre on a Wednesday night to see what it’s all about. The First Coast Shag Club offers free dancing and lessons each Wednesday night at the Cuba Libre Bar on Atlantic Boulevard and each Sunday afternoon at The Florida House Inn (Frisky Mermaid) in Fernandina.
Shaggin' the Night Away
by Erin Thursby