They drive from 50, 100, 200 miles away to give up their individuality, to suppress their egos, to lock into a familiar pattern determined by a decades-old beat.
They are the finest young practitioners of an art form their grandparents invented and most of their peers have abandoned. They are the Junior Shag Dance Team, preservers of the sacred steps and venerated variations of the state dance of North and South Carolina.
They won the team title at the U.S. Open Swing Dance Championships last November, where they beat Go Dance Swing (2013 champs and West Coast Swing stylists), The Swingaporeans (a Singapore squad versed in multiple styles) and DC Role Play (which mixes ballroom styles with Broadway-flavored choreography).
But the JSDT has earned many laurels, including the 2013 U.S.A. Grand National Dance Championships. When it’s not competing or giving demonstrations, it gathers in China Grove to rehearse under the miss-nothing eyes of choreographer Brennar Goree, himself just five years out of the junior class at 26.
What did they need to become national champs? Devotion, patience, hip-swivels James Brown would have regarded with approval, willingness to conform to strict coaching and comfortable pairs of loafers.
“You have to stay square with your partner,” Goree advises, putting them through endurance drills at Center Stage Dance Company. “It’s triple-step, kick, hit, doodah, doodah. The reason some of you are getting off is that you’re doing two Elvises instead of four Elvises.”
What sounds arcane to an observer comes as second nature to these teenagers, most of whom have been born into families where two generations did the Carolina Shag.
The dance form came out of ballroom styles of the 1930s and evolved after World War II. Folks knew it then as “fast dancing,” “beach dancing” or “half-time,” so called because it slowed down the snappiest beats of the Big Band era.
From Virginia Beach (Goree’s hometown) to Savannah, it became associated with beach music, a strange amalgam of doo-wop, close harmony, mid-tempo ballads and other elements. Unlike dances that came out of New York or Philadelphia or Los Angeles, this one has rural roots.
“The music evolves, with some outliers coming into it,” says Ashley Stewart, one of the JDST’s adult managers with Tobitha, his wife. “But there are gold-standard steps that have stayed the same over the years. A judge may let you adapt them within limits, but. ...”
“The basics stay the same,” Goree says. “Whether you’re slotted (in a line) or dancing in a circle, whether you’re doing eight beats or six, this dance has been around for 70 years. The kids respect that history; they know who the Hall of Fame shaggers are. I don’t know another style of dance where that’s true.”
Why do young people like it?
What makes this venerable dance attractive to, say, a 16-year-old junior at Cox Mill High School in Concord?
“It’s the tightness and cleanness of the footwork,” says JSDT member Kaylee Bravo. “We have to be so smooth that it looks easy, like the team is one person. And when you’re dancing with a partner, you have to look like one unit. You can’t fight him or outdo him. Shag dancers are true 50-50 partners; it’s a male-led dance, but I’m always involved in the steps.”
Many young dancers got into the groove like 17-year-old Noah Veon, one of the current team co-captains. Veon, who drives to rehearsals from Little River, S.C. – a trip of almost four hours each way – had a grandmother who said every Southerner needed to learn two things: How to play golf, and how to shag.
“I had two left feet, so it took awhile to get into it,” he says. “Most little boys don’t like to dance, so it’s harder to recruit guys. When I started to notice girls, it became more fun.
“If you take lessons, you develop a personal style, but you have to let go of that when you join a team. Being co-captain is a different thing altogether. You have to create your own fundraisers, or you can’t ask other kids to do that. You have to lead by example; if you’re careless, they get careless.”
Goree jokes that he started “when I came crying out of the womb. My mom was a ballroom dance instructor who needed boys to help her in class, and my grandmother pushed me out on the floor. With the promise of ice cream, I put down my Game Boy and learned the steps.
“I’m at a Junior S.O.S. (Society of Stranders) event in 1999, maybe 8 or 9 years old, and I draw Chelsea Cooley, Miss North Carolina (Teen USA), as my doubles partner. I’m looking at my nana, she’s smiling, and I decide I’m going to attend every workshop I can after that.”
The Charlotte-born Cooley went on to win the Miss USA pageant and compete for Miss Universe. Goree went on to spread the shag around the universe; he has taught in 12 countries and recently returned from Paris. “A rock step is a rock step, wherever you go,” he says.
‘He blew up our world’
He formed the JSDT in 2008 with Autumn Jones, his couples partner on the National Shag Dance Team. In 2010, the husband-and-wife dance team of Ashley and Tobitha Stewart began a juniors group called Crazy Eights, choreographed by Krystal Bravo. (She’s Kaylee’s elder sister.)
Krystal knew Goree; he came in with the Stewarts three years ago, and “he blew up our world,” says Tobitha. “He had kids who’d been dancing a year look like they’d been dancing their whole lives.”
Those kids learned the stutter, the duckwalk, the applejack, the boogiewalk, the bellyroll. And they became the JSDT.
Kayla Henley, a current co-captain and sophomore at Elon University, has been on this team for three seasons. She’s a leader in rehearsals: willing to joke but alert to details, setting a relaxed tone but snapping into routines when the music starts. To her, JSDT remains an extended family.
“If people have problems, they come to me like a big sister,” she says. “I make sure they have costumes ready. I motivate them. A lot of people look up to (Noah and me), and not just on the floor. When we are on the floor, we have to be dependable. But we’re also dependent on the other dancers.”
Though there’s no star system, there’s a hierarchy. Rock Hill’s Kaleb Brown, a 15-year-old in his first year, sometimes has a partner at rehearsal and sometimes stands to one side, going through the motions alone.
He’s an alternate who has to know everybody’s role before he can be first-string, yet he’s already an experienced fundraiser: He has sold hot dogs, danced for dollars, canvassed potential donors at shag clubs and even taught a shag class himself. And like his teammates, he’s aware that he’s part of a dwindling breed.
“Most of the students at my school (Northwestern High) don’t know what shag is. I tell them it’s the state dance, but they’re not curious. But over a thousand people went to Junior S.O.S., kids from lots of different states.”
It takes a dancing village...
Talk to any shagger long enough, and you hear about “the community”: children who admire their elders, adults who protect the kids and help them set goals.
“I consider every kid on our team our child,” says Tobitha Stewart. “I’m as close to them as to my own family, and we love each other unconditionally. If a lot of children were exposed to that kind of love, they might not be involved in the kinds of problems they have.”
“It’s like having 50 mothers and 50 fathers when they’re around older dancers,” says Goree. “The shag’s danced in bars, but you never see a junior dancer with a drink in his hand.”
The dancers age out of this team at 21. But they don’t age out of the dance itself until they hear the Grim Reaper singing “Come Go With Me.”
“I grew up with ballet from girlhood through high school,” says Kayla Henley. “At that point, unless you turn pro, you’re finished as a ballet dancer at 18. But the shag is a lifelong thing.”
Brennar Goree’s tips about shag dancing – and life
“My family’s motto is this: Everything in life worth doing is worth overdoing. If you want to work at a higher level, you have to think yourself there first.”
“The better you are, the more mistakes stand out. Do one or two things wrong, and the judges see them right away.”
“Watch the person next to you. Don’t worry about the whole line. If the two of you are lined up, the whole line will be straight.”
“Memorization is an individual responsibility. You can’t come to rehearsal and expect to learn everything here.”
“The reason I’m so hard on these dancers is because they’re so good. It’s a matter of fine-tuning good dancers, not teaching bad ones. You can’t be hard on bad dancers.”
“Shag dancing (believes in) the manners you used to see at the dinner table: good behavior, respect for your partner, treating others as family. Members of the shag community care for one another.”
Want to know more about the shag?
▪ The place to start is the Junior Shag Dance Team website. It offers history, videos, memorabilia and an opportunity to contribute to this 501(c)3 nonprofit. The JSDT hopes to dance in Europe and is raising money to offset that cost.
▪ The Junior Shag Association gives a bigger picture of the world of junior shagging. The Charlotte Shag Club site (which also has a Facebook page) gives a sense of what’s happening dancewise in the Queen City, while goshagging.com gives details about the Cornelius-based Twisters Shag Club.
▪ Tobitha and Ashley Stewart teach lessons around the region; you can sign up on the latter two sites or go to carolinashaglessons.com. You’ll find them at Lynn’s Dance Club, 4819 S. Tryon St., giving free lessons for dancers under 21 every other Thursday night.
▪ The Myrtle Beach-based Society of Stranders (as in Grand Strand) links shaggers around the world. And if you want a one-page description of the dance sometimes called the Carolina Shag and its history, try ncpedia.org.