How to dance the shag

What is Shag Dancing? - Steps on Toes Dance Lessons


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 Now, and for quite some time, it has been replaced by Collegiate Shag.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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