Above: Left to right, Rena Wood and Buddy Barber dance together at one of the weekly ShagAtlanta dances held at Nemoe’s Tavern in Norcross. Photos by Phil Mosier

Shag dancers still moving to that ‘smooth, good-looking dance’

Jimmy Ross leaned to dance The Shag back in the 1960s, when he was in high school in Atlanta. He danced at Misty Waters, an amusement park near Decatur that offered putt-putt golf, roller skating and a sandy beach alongside a lake. And it had The Shag, the dance from the beach.

“It was just a smooth, good-looking dance,” he said. “It’s fun to do it.”

Sharon Franklin dancing with her husband Dennis Franklin.

The Shag, sometimes called The Carolina Shag, was then a dance couples did to Beach Music. Not the Beach Boys’ music or reverb-and-riff-heavy Surf Music of guitarists such as Dick Dale, but the rhythm-and-blues songs that played at bars and beach clubs up and down the Carolina coast starting sometime around the beginning of the Baby Boom.

Beach Music centered on danceable songs such as “Stay” by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs and “Sixty-Minute Man” by the Dominoes. The Shag was the elegant, some say sexy, dance that partners performed to those songs.

Ross met his wife, Donna, at Misty Waters. She attended a different Atlanta high school, but they danced together at the amusement park. They married in 1964. They’re still married – it’ll be 54 years in October, he says proudly – and they’re still dancing The Shag.

In their younger days, the Rosses occasionally danced the old dance at friends’ parties, Ross said, but it wasn’t a regular thing. Then, in 1988, they heard about a group getting together in Marietta to dance to the old songs. They checked it out, signed up with the club the next year and “we’ve been coming ever since,” Ross said.

A generation later, the couple still turns out about twice a month for the dances put on by the club now known as ShagAtlanta. What keeps them coming back? “The people, the dance, the music … It’s like going back to high school,” Ross, a 72-year-old, retired manufacturers’ rep who now lives in McDonough, said one recent Saturday night as he took a brief break from dancing at a ShagAtlanta dance party.

Leading the line dance is Kathy Stowers, center.

More than 100 dancers usually show up when ShagAtlanta holds its weekly gatherings at Nemoe’s Tavern in Norcross, said club president Dennis Franklin of Roswell. Created in 1989 by the merger of two Atlanta shag groups, Atlanta Beach Club and the North Atlanta Beach Club, ShagAtlanta now claims 304 members and is among 103 clubs that are members of the Association of Carolina Shag Clubs, Franklin said.

The Atlanta club says it was among the founders of the A.C.S.C., which later spawned a related organization called the Society of Stranders, named for folks who flocked to the “Grand Strand” of beach communities along the Carolina Coast where The Shag was popularized. On its webpage, the Society of Stranders (called “S.O.S.” for short) lists more than 125 clubs, bars and other places scattered from Albermarle, N.C. to York, S.C. where a traveling shagger can find a place to kick back and dance.

S.O.S. also hosts three big parties a year at Myrtle Beach that draw dancers from all over. And other clubs in cities host their own regional gatherings. Chattanooga calls its party “Choo Choo Shag Tracks.” The one held in Panama City, Fla., is dubbed “Shag-A-Rama.” Atlanta shaggers say they regularly attend those multi-day parties as well as the ones in Myrtle Beach.

“The dance itself is a challenge to learn, but if you stick with it, the lifestyle takes you into a dance world up and down the Eastern seaboard,” said Kathy Stowers of Conyers, treasurer of the Atlanta club. “You meet lots of people in this dance world.”

Stowers says fondness for the dance creates camaraderie among shaggers, who like to get together, share a drink and perhaps dinner and show their stuff on the dance floor. “It’s a huge extended family,” the 71-year-old said. “It really is. I’ve got friends [who dance together] in Tampa, Augusta, Columbia, Myrtle Beach. In church, we call it ‘fellowship.’ There’s a unique fellowship among shaggers similar to the fellowship you have at church.”

Karyl Asta dancing with her husband Biff Asta.

“This is a family. It’s a big family,” said Paula Zuelke of Roswell. She’s 77 and has been coming to ShagAtlanta dances for eight years. At first, she “was a little dubious about it” because she doesn’t drink alcohol, she said. But once she took to the dance floor, she got it. “It’s just a wonderful place to get together with great friends,” she said. Besides, “I love to dance,” she said. Now, she’s a regular at the Saturday night dances. She’s even been on a Shag cruise.

There are other clubs for other those who prefer other dances – swing dancing, for example – but the shaggers say they come together to dance a particular dance with its own set of rules and its own special steps. “We’re not a ‘dance club,’ we are a Shag club,” Stowers said. “It’s not a meat market. We’re here to dance.”

And dance they do. For those who don’t know how, every gathering starts with lessons, which are free for beginners. The club charges a $45 for an annual membership and a $5 cover charge for each dance party. “It beats the heck out of sitting home on a Saturday night and watching television,” Stowers said.

One recent Saturday night, club members gathered in the big back room at Nemoe’s danced to recordings played by DJ Billy Waldrep of Spartanburg, S.C., introduced as a recent inductee into the Shag DJ Hall of Fame.

Waldrep says the music shaggers dance to has changed through the years. The Shag is no longer tied to Beach Music, he said, but now can be performed to any song with the proper beat. Waldrep says shaggers these days dance to all types of tunes, from a classic by Sam Cooke to a modern dance number by Justin Timberlake. He’ll even throw in a gospel song now and then.

“The music has evolved so much over the years,” he said. “It’s not pigeonholed like it once was. We still have all the Beach Bands – the Embers, The Catalinas, we still play Solomon Burke – but we have some gospel tunes, some country… almost anything that has that beat.”

Dancers at a ShagAtlanta Saturday get-together.

The music may be different, shaggers say, but the dance remains pretty much the same, even as it has become formalized and scrubbed up enough to become the Official State Dance of both Carolinas. If anything, the dancers say, The Shag may even be a little bit showier than it was in its early days. Back then, it was the dance you could do on the sand and it often was described as so smooth you could do it without spilling a drop from the can of beer you held in your free hand.

Gary Godwin, who’s 77 and now lives in Cumming, learned The Shag long before he was old enough to have a beer. “I’ve been doing it since I was 12 years old,” he said. More than half a century later, “everybody’s got a different style,” he said. “I dance more like the ‘50s. I don’t hop. I just do a lot of steps. I’m a street dancer.”

Like other ShagAtlanta members, Godwin says he comes to the club’s parties to dance and to hang out with fellow shaggers. And, perhaps, club members say, occasionally to recall what it was like back in high school, when you could travel to some glittery fantasyland like Misty Waters or Myrtle Beach just to show your moves on the dance floor.

“My grandkids tell me, ‘You have more fun than we do,’” Stowers said. “Yeah, we do.”

ShagAtlanta meets on Saturday nights from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. at Nemoe’s Tavern & Grill, 6025 Peachtree Parkway, Norcross 30092. Memberships cost $45 a year. There is a $5 cover charge for non-members. For more information: www.shagatlanta.com.

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.