History of Collegiate Shag Dance
History of Collegiate Shag Dance History of Collegiate Shag Dance

The Collegiate Shag (or "Shag") is a partner dance done primarily to up-tempo jazz (185-200+ beats per minute).

Shag belongs to the swing family of American vernacular dances that arose in the 1920s and 30s. It originated in North Carolina, but quickly spread across the United States during the 1930s and as far as Australia by the 1940s. The dance is still performed today by swing dance enthusiasts worldwide.

"Shag" itself (when used in reference to American social dances) is a very broad term used to denote a number of swing dances that originated during the early part of the 20th century. Arthur Murray mentioned shag in his 1937 book "Let's Dance". This article states that shag was known throughout the entire country under various names, like "flea hop". A New York writer sent to Tulsa, Oklahoma in late 1940, early 1941 noted an "...Oklahoma version of shag done to the western swing music of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys at the Cain's Dancing Academy in Tulsa."

Moreover, in the 1935 book entitled Textbook of Social Dancing, Lucielle and Agnes Marsh state, "At the most exclusive Charleston Colonial Ball we found the debutantes and cadets doing what they call the Shag. This is a daring little hop and kick with sudden lunges and shuffling turns. As we followed our survey through the South we found the same little, quick hop, skip, and jump under the names of Fenarly Hop and Florida Hop. Through the West the same steps could be traced under the names of Collegiate, Balboa, and Dime Jig. On returning to New York we found the Lindy Hop in the middle and lower classes still going strong, and even in staid old New England the younger set were introducing the shuffle and kick into their Foxtrot."

Today the term "collegiate shag" is most often used in reference to a kind of double shag (see explanation below) that is believed to have originated in New York or New Jersey during the 1930s. To call the dance "collegiate shag" was not as common during the swing era as it is today, but when the "collegiate" portion was tacked on (as it was with other vernacular dances of the time) it was meant to indicate the style of the dance that was popular amongst the college crowd.

The identification of a particular variant as 'collegiate' probably had its roots in a trend that sprang up in the mid-1920s, where collegiate variations of popular dances began to emerge. These included dances like the collegiate tango, collegiate rumba, collegiate one-step, collegiate fox trot, etc. These forms employed hops, leaps, kicks, stamps, stomps, break-away movements, and shuffling steps.

The name "collegiate shag" became somewhat standard in the latter part of the 20th century, presumably because it helped to distinguish the dance from other American vernacular dances that share the "shag" designation.

Carolina shag, which evolved from a dance called the Little Apple, and St. Louis shag, which is believed to have been an outgrowth of the Charleston, both adopted the name shag though neither one of them is directly related to the shag that's the focus of this article.

Shag's origins are not very clear.

For instance, it is believed that first dance known by the name "shag" was invented in 1927 by a man named Lewis Philip Hall. He and his dance partner introduced the dance at the second annual Feast of Pirates festival in Wilmington, N.C. in 1928. But this dance wasn't the same shag (in any of its known forms) that became so popular amongst the swing dance circles of the late 1930s and 40s.

The naming practices of the time were very inconsistent. Hence, Carolina shag and St Louis shag both came to be called "shag", though they have very different origin stories. So, although it's possible that the dance Hall and his partner invented somehow gave rise to the shag of the swing era, this possibility could also be extended to a number of other seemingly unrelated dances from the early 1930s that were also called the "shag".

Some historians believe the dance itself actually originated in the African American community in the 1920s, where it may or may not have been called "shag".  Where the term "shag" entered the picture isn't entirely clear. Lewis Hall probably played a part in this, but where he got the name is uncertain.

In the late 19th century the term "shagger" was a nickname given to vaudeville performers, so it may have been that Hall or someone else took the name from Vaudeville. Whatever the case may be, "shag" later became a blanket term used to signify a broad range of jitterbug dances (swing dances) that shared certain characteristics.

By the late-1930s there were arguably a hundred or more stylistic variations of the dance, which differed by geographic region.

Dance instructors at the time often generalized these stylistic variations into rhythmic categories such as: single rhythm, double rhythm, and triple rhythm shag. The different names are intended to denote the number of 'slow' steps (e.g., a step, hop combination) performed during each basic. The slow steps were then followed by two 'quick' steps (e.g., a step, step combination).

Today, shag enthusiasts and swing dance historians also recognize an additional shag rhythm that has come to be known as "long double-shag". This rhythmic variation is identical to double-shag except that it has four quick steps rather than two. It has been traced to Charlotte, NC, at least as far back as 1936, where it co-existed with the triple and single-rhythm variations. It is commonly believed that double-rhythm shag evolved after these, as the dance spread north. And, though double-shag is the most popular form of collegiate shag today, single-shag is believed to have been the dominant rhythm during the swing era.

The Steps
Double-shag, which uses a 'slow, slow, quick, quick' rhythm. And unlike the other three rhythmic patterns, which all have eight counts in their basic, the double-rhythm basic has six counts.

The basic step is danced in a face-to-face ("closed") but staggered position (i.e., the lead and follow are chest to chest, but their orientation to one another is offset in such a way that the feet are not toe-to-toe but alternate like the teeth of a zipper). Partners stand very close, with the lead's right hand positioned on the follow's back. The follow's left arm then rests either on the lead's shoulder or draped around his neck.

It was also common for partners to have an exaggerated hand-hold (i.e., the way the lead's left hand and arm are positioned as he hold the follow's right hand) where the arms are held high in the air. Depending upon the height of each partner, the couple may have their arms pointed straight up. This was not always practiced, but it is understood to be one of shag's distinctive features. Some dancers prefer to hold the arms much lower, similar to conventional ballroom positioning. Finally, the follow's footwork usually mirrors the lead's.

Note: Step is defined as: a weight shift to the opposite foot while hopping (this is usually minimal; almost more of a slide than a literal hop). Hop is defined as: a lift-and-plant motion on the same foot. The planted foot is the foot with the dancer's weight on it.

Basic: (from the lead's point-of-view) Beat 1: STEP onto left foot, beat 2: HOP on left, beat 3: STEP onto right foot, beat 4: HOP on right, beat 5: STEP onto left foot, and beat 6: STEP onto right foot. The movement during beats 5 and 6 is often described as a shuffling motion. This is usually broken down verbally as "slow, slow; quick, quick" where the 'slows' cover two beats (or 'counts') each and the 'quicks' mark a single beat (or 'count') each. Hence, for the lead this would be two counts with the weight on the left leg while the right leg moves, two counts with weight on the right leg while the left leg moves, followed by a quick step onto the left and then a quick step onto the right. The follow's movement would be the exact opposite.

Camel Kicks: (done with the partners positioned side-by-side) the same movement as the basic but where the non-planted foot kicks on each slow, and where the quick-quicks are done with one foot behind the other (in tandem).

Shag Dip (a.k.a. Breaks): A step and hold action where the non-planted leg is extended fully and the planted leg is bent underneath the dancer for support (hop onto left, leaving out the step; hop onto right, leave out the step; step left and step right)

Shag Turn: it is customary for most turns in shag to be executed on the 5-6 (i.e., the quicks-quicks). The most common turn is executed from closed position on the last two beats of the basic (5-6) with the follow traveling clockwise. The lead executes this by using his right hand (on the follows back) to lead her to turn on counts 5 and 6. Partners then return to closed position on the first count of the next basic.

Apache (a.k.a. "Texas Tommy") turns are also common in shag.

Historically, shag was done to a wider variety of tempos, from 145 to 200+ beats per minute.
Murray, Arthur. Let's Dance. S.l.: Standard Brands Inc, 1937. pg 27. Print.
San Antonio Rose - The Life and Music of Bob Wills. Charles R. Townsend. 1976. University of Illinois. page 198. ISBN 0-252-00470-1
Marsh, Agnes L. Textbook of Social Dancing. New York: Fischer, 1935. preface pg VI. Print.
Ernest E. Ryan School of Dancing. Advertisement. American Dancer 1 June 1927: 4. Print.
Collegiate Dance. Advertisement. Jefferson Herald 14 June 1928: 8. Print.
In the literature, Hall refers to his partner as "Julia", though it is inferred that this was not her real name.
Hall, Lewis P. The Land of the Golden River. Wilmington, N.C. Wilmington Press, 1975. pp. 143-44
Powell-Poole, Helon. "The Carolina Shag." American Dancer, Jan. 1936: 13. Print.
The rhythmic variations described here were not exclusive to shag. See Clendenen, F L. Dance Mad or the Dances of the Day. St. Louis, Mo: Arcade Print Co., 1914. and McDougall, Thomas. "The Foxtrot: And other Gossip from the States." Dancing Times . Oct. 1914.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act, but a habit. -Aristotle

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