Collegiate Shag Roots

This is just a short quote from a Bobby White’s article about The 1937 Harvest Moon Ball which includes some thorough insights on Collegiate Shag roots and history. See the original version on his blog SWUNGOVER. We are sharing it here with Bobby’s personal permission so it would be more accessible to wider audience.
To support Bobby White’s insights and research on jazz dance history, please consider a suggested donation of 6$ to read a full article.

The 1937 Harvest Moon Ball – The “New” Kid

Most of this article will focus on the Lindy Hop of the 1937 Harvest Moon Ball. However, we want to first discuss something important that happened in this year’s ball. In that announcement mentioned above, a new dance appeared in the listing of the divisions: “Collegiate Shag.” Those who read SWUNGOVER’S 1936 HMB article will remember a Collegiate Shag couple had actually made it into the Lindy Hop finals, only to find themselves surrounded by Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. (No pressure.)

Well, the next year, according to the Daily News, the “Collegiate Shag” was demanded by hundreds of the newly crazed, mostly-student dancers — and when they signed up for the division, they doubled the amount of the applications of the next most popular dance, the Waltz.

Everyone knows Lindy Hop was a product of the Black American culture of Jazz-era Harlem, New York. But what about this newcomer to New York, Shag? Where did it come from? And what are its cultural roots? Before we get the help of some Shag experts to help answer that, try this thought exercise: Imagine for a moment we simply said “You might not know this, but Shag was a ‘White dance.’” How would that make you feel about the dance? What would that mean to you? Would it make you feel uneasy, or perhaps the opposite — more comfortable with its existence? (For instance, a White Shag dancer being convinced it’s a “White dance” might feel comfort in knowing they perhaps don’t have to worry about navigating appropriation as much as a Lindy Hopper might.)

Now, imagine we said, “You might not know this, but Shag was originally a ‘Black dance.’” Now, how would that make you feel, and what would that mean to you? Did you all of a sudden find Shag “cooler” after that sentence, if you didn’t think it was cool before? Did it make you uncomfortable, knowing there was perhaps more of the problem of appropriation to consider than you had already thought?

And how did you feel that those questions imply a dichotomy — that “White swing dance” and “Black swing dance” are two valid categories in terms of looking at this specific situation?

We’d like to argue that thinking of jazz era partnership dances as “White dances” verses “Black dances” is not a very realistic, or useful, way to view them. First off, we will do so by arguing there’s no such thing as a jazz era dance that doesn’t in some way share ownership with Black American artistic values.

Let’s begin with the music. “Collegiate Shag” as this dance is done today was evolved to jazz and swing music in the jazz era. What are some of the values emphasized in Black American Jazz music? Swung rhythm, improvisation, call and response, individuality interconnected with teamwork, sharing and collaboration between musicians and dancers, and sharing and shining among fellow musicians (such as found in solo trading, cutting contests, and jams). Now then, if a dance done to this music embodies and emphasizes those Black American artistic values, then those values are in its DNA. Even if White people predominantly developed them, they were doing so because they correctly interpreted those Black values in the music. In this sense, any swing dance that emphasizes those same values is tied to Black American dancing values on a fundamental level. Does Shag embody these?

Well, let’s look at the dancing values that Shag commonly shows that are often emphasized in Black American culture, and that were not commonly emphasized in early 1900s European-American dancing culture: constant improvisation, solo dancing expression even within partnership dances, full-bodied dancing (all body parts available for expression), breaking away (partnering without physical contact), emphasis on rhythmic complexity, sharing and shining the dance, and a showcasing of many different personalities within its movement — such as humorous, elegant, fierce, or eccentric movement.

(Please note, we’re not saying European-American partner dancing is completely devoid of all of those traits, just that they are just not as emphasized, or in the same characteristic ways.) So, again, even if it were developed by White Americans from its very beginning, it still has all the hallmarks of a strong influence from Black American dancing values. (We would make a similar argument for there being Black American cultural values inherent in the Southern California dances, Balboa and “swing.”)            

Okay, but, what about this “Collegiate Shag” the Harvest Moon Ball is showcasing, what are it’s literal origins? Where did it come from? Shag historians have differing points of view. Some think it most likely comes from vaudeville steps which have Black origins, others think it evolves from a dance named “Shag” commonly mentioned in papers from the Carolinas, which also probably had some roots in Black American dance forms and movement paired together with White American dances. (Whenever dancing from the South is concerned, there’s a pretty good bet Black American values are a part of it, as Black culture has always greatly influenced Southern culture. We will see this happen even more definitively by the creation of the Big Apple later this year.)

As far as the Harvest Moon Balls go, its professed “expert” on Lindy Hop and Collegiate Shag was a man named Bernie Sager. Bernie was a very well-known and influential dance instructor at the time. And he had demonstrated the “Collegiate Shag” for the “dancing masters annual convention” in August of 1937, as “the very latest step in ball room fox trot dancing.”  By 1939, he’s being credited with having introduced the dance to Northern ballrooms, perhaps implying by that wording that it came from southern dance forms. And, by 1940, he is mentioned as having personally re-styled a dance step called the flea hop into the “Collegiate Shag” himself.

[continue on SWUNGOVER]

Harvest Moon Ball 1937
Harvest Moon Ball 1937 Ad
1937 collegiate shag explanation clipping daily news wed jul 14 1937
Daily News, July 14th, 1937
daily news mon jul 12 1937 1
From the Daily News, July 12, 1937

To support Bobby White’s insights and research on jazz dance history, please consider a suggested donation of 6$ to read a full version of this article on his website.

The Collegiate Shag History

This article about Collegiate Shag History was written around 2009 by dancer historian Peter Loggins. See the original version on his blog the Jassdancer. We are sharing it here with Peter’s personal permission so it would be more accessible to wider audience.
For more insights and American dance history research, check his Twobarbreak page and Twobarbreak’s Dance History Group on Facebook.

The Collegiate Shag History

What is this dance all the kids are doing today called Collegiate Shag? Where did it come from and what is it’s history? The truth is the history is very spotty, very little documentation and to make things worse the term “Shag” has come to mean many unrelated dances just like the term Jitterbug.

One of most popular dances in the United States today is called Carolina Shag, or too many in that region – just Shag. To make things more complicated, the city of St Louis, has it’s regional dance called St. Louis Shag, that traces even further back into the 1930s, but again – to the dancers it’s simply called Shag.

The enormous popularity of the Carolina Shag over the past couple decades, has caused enthusiast to try and research it’s history and all it seems have made the mistake of relating the Carolina Shag of today with the Shag done previous to WW2, done by the dancers who made the Big Apple famous. However, before we get into that lets start with square one with the term Collegiate Shag.


The term “Collegiate“, was simply a descriptive term used to explain who, or the way a dance was done. For instance, Collegiate Waltz or Collegiate Fox Trot, simply put, this was the way the college kids did the dance.

This style was not tied to any studio standard or structure but rather to whatever they felt was the way. This could be considered a rebellious type of dance, but not so much in that they just had their own way which was or could have been the trendy way to do it. Different schools had there way to do things and this is what set them a part, the college set.

So now, we just have Shag. Where does this word even come from? Well, I know the word is in fact used in a 1890 book with the definition being a vaudeville performer. This definition of the term “Shag” continued to be used all the way into the 1920’s, however it’s definition changed to be more specific describing burlesque acts, and not just any vaudeville performer.

One of the most knowledgeable historians in this field was Lance Benishek. He reminded us that these vaudeville performers did a step called the Flea Hop which consisted of a step-hop which alternated right to left, and that is one of the possibilities.

Just as possible, I recall doing a performance Turkey Trot at a large camp in Sweden, and the legendary Norma Miller who started dancing at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem during the early 1930s, told me it was were the Shag came from.


Let’s put all this “Term History” to rest for a second and let me introduce to you the first use of the partner dance called “The Shag“. I found a book called “Land of the Golden River” by Lewis Phillip Hall. During the winter of 1927 he came up with a dance routine called “The Shag“, Lewis introduced this in august of 1928 in Wilmington at the Pirates Festival. Then in 1930, Kay Keever, who was married to the band leader Jelly Leftwhich, who played at the dances, remembers singing in his band and jumping off stage to dance The Shag with Lewis Hall, and backs up Lewis claim that he was the one that invented the dance.

July 25th, 1929 (Blytheville Courier News, Arkansas)
Virginia Beach, VA. Sun back bathing suits and beach pajamas are the costume, the sands are the dance floor and the fastest time know to the terpsichorean art. The tempo for “The Shag” is the latest test for the energy of the southern colonist. While classified as a dance, the Shag essentially requires energy rather then grace. It apparently is the embodiment of all the movements of Highland Swing and the late Charleston. Unlike the Charleston, the feet of the dancers not lifted.

Although, in the south there were contest every summer at the ballrooms starting in 1929, there was no mention until 1932.

July 22,1932 (Ironwood Daily Globe)
When the convention of dancing teachers opened at the Hotel New Yorker recently, an announcement was made that the Lindy Hop remained an outstanding ballroom dance. During the several days which elapsed, someone must have gone over the more recent dispatches. Toward the final session the statements read that the Earhart Hop would be “the thing”.
This winter the Shag at eve will have it’s fill. The teachers have decided upon the Shag as one of their favorite dances. I’m told that it’s a mild form of Tango and an improvement on the shuffle. Well the milder the better, so far as I’m concerned.

Followed closely by this advertisement 2 months later:

September 1st 1932 (Wilmington Morning Star)
“SHAG Dance contest to be held tonight at Wrightsville”

Is this the same Shag dance being done today or called the Collegiate Shag today? No, it’s not, but it was the original Collegiate Shag, and it was from the Carolinas.


Somewhere along the lines, dance studios started using single, double and triple Shag, to separate the styles but I think it just made things more confusing. I’ll explain why as I go along.

The Collegiate Shag of today is commonly refereed to as “Double Shag“. The double consist of a step and hop on your left, and then a step and hop on your right – this takes up 4 beats of music, and then a step-step, or left right which is 2 beats of music completing the 6 beats of music. You can also simply say slow-slow-quick quick….to achieve the same timing.

Now to do the triple Shag, you simply add a step hop, making 3 step hops, before doing the quick quick. “Triple Shag” however can also mean adding “triple steps” to any basic Shag, which is a syncopated 3 steps within 2 beats.

I can think of 3 basics that fall under the term “Single Shag“:
1) You start with a step-hop quick quick which is 4 beats, and then you do the same thing starting on the other foot, step-hop quick quick, completing the 8 beats of music.
2) step, step, step-hop…and then alternate starting on right, step, step, step hop.
3) last is same as Cat step, Balboa, Jig Trot step and hop on 2 and 3.

So the terms single, double, triple simply add confusion to a set of dances, that already have names which are separated by regions. These could all be considered Collegiate Shag, even though they are different dances done in different areas of the country during the Swing Era.


Now lets dig a little deeper… One of the most famous film clips of Shag is no doubt Arthur Murray teaching the Shag in 1937 with his students and performers. How did he find the dance? Well, it goes back to a dance called the Big Apple, and the original Big Apple dancers who all did the Shag, the southern version or Single Shag. This was their Swing dance, and what they did when they “shined” or went into a circle to “jam“.

Upon their arrival to New York with the national popularity of their Big Apple dance, Arthur Murray and one of his pupils Tom Gallagher took a trip to one of the most popular collegiate ballrooms called the Club Fordham. Upon their arrival they discovered an entire crowd of shag dancers, all doing the dance which we are discussing in this article. Well, it didn’t take long for Arthur Murray to recruit dancers and a month or two later to come out with the video we know of today.

So that’s it? 1937? Nothing earlier for this 6 count Shag? Well, not necessarily so. A dancer who I came to know as Connie Wiedell, who’s real name was Conrad, brought this dance to Los Angeles in 1935, and I’ve know quite a few dancers that remembered that moment very well, as he first pulled up in his green Cord automobile. He became very famous in the Los Angeles dance scene as being a Shag dancer and appeared in films during the Swing Era, not to mention he taught a lot of dancers and it became his “style” or “look” of Shag that would forever become famous for being used in cartoons.

Connie was from Minnesota, and was working in a theater in 1934 when he learned to do the Shag from some professional dancers. These dancers were on tour doing a dance called the Peabody. On his way to Los Angeles he thought he would call the dance “Chicago Shag” to make it sound more exciting and also accepting with the new dancers he would be coming across, however, thankfully that term never stuck, which would have confused history.


The dance simply became a “step” to use in their Swing dancing, such as Maxie Dorf, Ricky Birch, Fred Christopherson, Hal Takier, and even Dean Collins. One of my favorite clips is in the movie “Cabin in the Sky” with Duke Ellington’s orchestra. Ricky Birch who was Connie’s roommate at one time, comes in the club and jumps over a table with his partner before going into the Shag.

Today most dancers look at Connie Wiedell who dances in the Venice beach clip in 1938, Freddie and Betty Christopherson in 1937 adding Shag into their Swing, also Ray Hirsch and Patty Lacy in “Blondie Meets the Boss” (1939) and “Mad Youth” (1940). Also, there are some short clips of the Harvest Moon Ball which was held in Madison Square Garden, between the years 1936 and 1939 it had a Shag division, lastly, as mentioned before, Arthur Murray’s instructional video comes to mind as a great source, followed by Vitaphone shorts with Artie Shaw and Woody Herman.
These are just a few of the clips that have become famous for today dancers.

I know, it’s one of those dances that almost just seems to appear out of nowhere, becomes the most popular dance for kids for a few years and then disappears.
Obviously these kids in their saddle shoes who laid claim to doing this dance grew up and learned sophistication in dance was more important then hopping around the floor, that and the music they loved took a back seat to new music forms that did not fit the Swing mold.


My personal opinion is the dance came from Turkey Trot which was a basic step for the Tommy dance as well. We know from film this dance was based on a step hop, step hop, when the quick quick came in we don’t really know, however during the teens the Two Step and Fox Trot became a huge hit across the country which at least explains the possibility of added a variation of timing, which here means adding a quick-quick or step step alternating feet. In the Turkey Trot we see the same posture, same turns and patterns. The earliest I have this on film is 1914, however oral history of interviews puts the dance at least 5 years earlier. It was Al Jolsen that discovered these dancers and brought them from San Francisco to New York around 1914 which helped spread the dances popularity on both coast.

We’ve also heard of dancers claim that the Turkey Trot or Texas Tommy helped influence the Lindy Hop – if that’s possible certainly it makes a lot more sense that it helped influence the Shag, if not created it.

Anyways, this is my research and look at the dance which has become more popular in the last few years. Although, I started doing it over 10 years ago after discovering the Arthur Murray clip and practicing with friends, learned as many steps from old timers, and spent unknown hours with Connie Wiedell. It seems to have recently had a small revival, with Shag weekends slowly popping up around the world. In the late 1990s we had Shag contest all around Southern California which was real fun, but it didn’t seem to last long, as most dancers were interested more in Lindy Hop, Swing, Charleston and Balboa. However, there were those countless nights in the back room of the Derby in Hollywood of all of us Shag dancers going off and jamming! Imagine that on a regular night out….those were the days!

Collegiate Shag History (Life Magazine, 1937)
Life Magazine, 1937
On with the Shag
From the Altoona Tribune Feb 25, 1930
Arthur Murray – How To Shag, 1937
Venice Beach Swing Dance 1938
Connie Wiedell on the right. Venice Beach, 1938
Connie Wiedell
Peter Loggins & Lisa Ferguson at Camp Hollywood
Peter Loggins and Lisa Ferguson, circa 2000
Norma Miller and Peter Loggins
Norma Miller and Peter Loggins

Lietuviškai apie Collegiate Shag ir St. Louis Shag.

Inspiring Vintage Shag Clips

Collection of Our Favorite Vintage Shag Clips

Dance scenes from old movies and contests. Mostly Collegiate Shag, a bit of Big Apple, Balboa, Tap and other Swing. More on our YouTube playlists.
Also, see an overview by Ryan Martin & Patrick Kierkegaard of vintage clips that contain Collegiate Shag dancing.
And if you missed it, here’s everything you need to get on with the Shag.


1937 – Phony Boy
1937 – Arthur Murray – How To Shag
1938 – Venice Beach – Connie Wiedell, Barbara Plum
The 1938 Harvest Moon Ball Shag Division
1939 – Blondie Meets The Boss
1942 – Verna Middleton & George Washington (starting at 01:57)

1937 – Dates and Nuts
1937 – The Big Apple with the Arthur Murray Shag Dancers
1938/1940? – Hal & Honey Abbott (Woody Herman and His Orchestra)
1939 – Toy and Wing
Collegiate Shag at Harvest Moon Ball (Late 1930s?)
1942 – Cabin in the Sky (starting at 03:10)

On With The Shag: Essential Resources About The Shag Dance

Essential and inspiring articles, documentaries, dance videos, playlists and social media about the history and culture of Collegiate Shag, St. Louis Shag and Swing dancing in general. On with the Shag!

COLLEGIATE SHAG & ST. LOUIS SHAG

DANCE INSTRUCTION

SWING IN GENERAL

FACEBOOK SOCIAL GROUPS

MUSIC

  • Swing and Modern Swing Spotify playlist by Arnas – Swing it SHAG
Twobarbreak Shag
From the Altoona Tribune Feb 25, 1930. Found by Peter Loggins
History of Shag Dance by Ryan Martin
History of Shag Dance by Ryan Martin