“We were the coolest guys on the beach,” says H. Lee Brown, the slim, deeply tanned, sixty-something owner of the Ocean Drive Pavilion and one of the acknowledged shag dance kings of North Myrtle Beach.

He and his buddies still are kings – at least during the Mid-Winter Classic, Spring Safari and Fall Migration, three enormous multi-day events featuring dance contests, exhibitions and more that bring shaggers from across North America. During those exciting festival days, thousands of shag dance enthusiasts flood North Myrtle Beach, many of them heading straight for good old H. Lee’s place.

H. Lee is a pretty big wheel the rest of the year too, since shagging never really stops in North Myrtle Beach. Someone’s always dancing somewhere.

On Tuesday nights, you’ll find a big crowd at Fat Harold’s Beach Club staring alternately at their feet and at the two swivel-hipped instructors sliding back and forth on the smooth wooden floor. These dancers have to count their steps out loud and are often gently reminded not to bounce, and to keep their movements low and smooth. They’re not real shaggers yet – just tourists who like the beach music sound of bands like Dip Ferrell and the Trutones, the Shimp Shack Band and Mighty Mo Rogers. They’re shag dancer-wannabes.

If you want to see real shaggers doing it like it’s meant to be done, come Thursday, Friday or Saturday. Get yourself a place at the bar at Ducks, the O.D. Pavilion or Fat Harold’s (Yes, Virginia, there really is a Fat Harold. You can’t miss him and he might even serve you a beer!) You’ll find them all on or around Main Street, North Myrtle Beach, right where the heart of shag dancing has been keeping a steady beat since the early 1960’s.

Today, when it’s perfectly legal for couples to grind against one another in sweaty bliss on dance floors around the world, it’s laughable to imagine that anything as tame as shag dancing was ever considered a threat to public decency – but it was.  

In those early days, shag dancing – a sort of smooth, slowed-down, sensuous version of jitterbugging  – was a dangerous occupation. If the cops caught you shagging, you’d end your night in the town lockup.

 “We’d hide out, dance to the jukeboxes in the pavilions down on the sand, and run if we saw a police car coming,” says H. Lee. “If we invited a friend out to the beach for the weekend and he didn’t get arrested, we figured he hadn’t had much fun.”

They’re still dancing in the pavilions in North Myrtle Beach, and in the clubs, and even on the streets – but no one gets arrested any more. The shag is now the state dance of both North and South Carolina and it’s a huge tourist draw.

“North Myrtle Beach is all about shagging. If you want the water slides, the amusement parks and the t-shirt stands – that’s down the road in Myrtle Beach. This here is a whole different thing,” says H. Lee.

It’s the land where time stood still.

If you were a cool guy in the shag dancing world of the sixties, and you’ve still got the moves, then baby…you’re as cool as you ever were. Your sun-bleached hair may now be grey – or gone – but if you can still shag, you’re still a king.

You may be wondering about the queens of shag dancing. The truth is, while there are certainly tributes to great female shag dancers on the walls of the Shag Dance Hall of Fame at the Ocean Drive Beach Club (Vanna White’s mother is among them but more about Vanna later…) shagging is more about the male of the dancing species. Unlike jiving, jitterbugging or even ballet, in which the male dancer’s role is to lift, spin, toss, catch and generally showcase the moves of his female partner, shagging is a different ballgame. It’s all about how well a man can execute smooth footwork to a low-key beach music beat. The lady who carefully follows his lead is frankly little more than wrist candy, but no one’s raising a feminist ruckus about it.

“When we were kids, it didn’t matter what you did for a living or how much money you had. The girls just wanted to be with the best dancers,” says H. Lee. “One really great shagger worked as a bartender at a club and he’d only come out from behind that bar once or twice a night. Every girl wanted him to ask her to dance.”

After a slow walk around the room to consider his options, the shag dance king would make his choice and the lucky lady would swoon her way onto the dance floor, as rivals glared enviously.

That still happens at the North Myrtle Beach shag dance bars. If a man can dance, the pick of the female crop is his.

Unlike other nightclubs, where single women rule the floor, dancing together as hapless men try to break into the pack, shag dance clubs have a whole different etiquette. A lady waits until a gentleman asks her to dance. He leads, she follows. When the song ends, the gentleman escorts the lady back to her table.

And as for hanky-panky, that’s not the point. This isn’t dancing as a quick prelude to something more intimate. This is dancing for dancing’s sake. Period.

One female regular at Fat Harold’s moved to North Myrtle Beach following her husband’s death, just so she could dance. Three or four nights a week, she turns up alone at Fat Harold’s or one of the other shagging clubs on the strip, dances with a variety of partners, and leaves – alone.

“That’s the way I like it,” she smiles. “Heaven knows, I don’t want another man! I just want to dance.”

The term shag dancing, according to local experts, grew out of the disapproving descriptions the early dancers’ parents gave it – saying the swaying motion made the dancers look like shaggy old men on the boardwalk. It’s a name that has given rise to some very funny misunderstandings.

There’s a wonderful story about a British gentleman who invited a female business acquaintance in North Myrtle Beach to join him for dinner. The meal went well so afterward, the Brit suggested a nightcap at a bar. “Well,” said the North Myrtle Beach lady, “Since you’re here, we really should shag.” For one brief, shining moment, that British gentleman thought he’d died and gone to heaven. No nightcap, no chat and no foreplay necessary – just dinner and straight to shagging.

“Yeah,” laughs H. Lee when he hears the story. “Lots of guys have made that mistake!”

If you’d like to try shag dancing, you’ll be happy to discover that the outlay for equipment is minimal. No fancy outfits and the lessons are free at Fat Harold’s – all you need is the right pair of shoes. You’ll find them at Judy’s House of Oldies , on Main Street, along with a selection of the best beach music you’ll ever listen to. Note: you can tell a real shagger by the shoes – if they don’t slip and slide, they can’t dance.

There’s a small-town, Mayberry-like charm to North Myrtle Beach that’s completely unlike the more high-speed, hot sun, big fun vibe of nearby Myrtle Beach. People go to Myrtle Beach for golf, for the Vegas-style shows, for a taste of sun, fun and all-you-can-eat seafood buffets – and it’s all great family entertainment.  But people come to North Myrtle Beach for something quite different – a taste of a gentler time in a world where shag dance kings still rule.

To See and Be Seen

While North Myrtle Beach has many restaurants that feature delicious beach dinners – big aluminum buckets filled with clams, shrimp, oysters, deep-fried corn (delicious does not necessarily mean heart-healthy!) – the one place you really have to visit is Hoskins.  The food is down home low country fare, but it’s the patrons you don’t want to miss.

As H. Lee Brown was escorting me through the door of the modestly decorated little place – a lot like my Aunt Sadie’s back porch – I asked about a road sign I’d noticed on my way into town, proudly announcing that North Myrtle Beach was home to Vanna White.

“Sure is,” he said. “And she comes back all the time to visit her folks.”

Because for H. Lee, life just glides along like shagging shoes on a dance floor, I wasn’t too surprised to see Vanna, the Wheel of Fortune star, sitting right there at a Hoskins table, along with her dad, step-mom and old friend Pearl.

Did H. Lee hurry over to her table? Nah. Although he gave her one of his million-watt shag king smiles and a big hello as we passed, it was Vanna who soon came visiting at our table.

Like I said, once a shag dance king, always a shag dance king, no matter who’s in the room!

Ready to put on your dancing shoes? For more information on North Myrtle Beach visit www.northmyrtlebeachonline.com. For information and dates for the Mid-Winter Classic, Spring Safari and Fall Migration visit www.shagdance.com and for information on Myrtle Beach, visit www.visitmyrtlebeach.com