The Carolina Shag originated in a time of racial segregation, post- World War II euphoria, jukeboxes, the classic cars, and summer vacations on the coast. The Carolina Shag is considered to have originated in Columbia at the Big Apple Night Club. The Big Apple Night Club was formerly the House of Peace Synagogue.
In 1936, the House of Peace Synagogue congregation outgrew the building and agreed to sell it to H.S. Portes for $900. Portes remodeled the synagogue and rented it to Fred “Fat” Sams and piano player “Big” Elliot Wright who founded the Big Apple Night Club. It was the days of Jim Crow where there were dance clubs for “Colored” and there were dance clubs for “Whites Only.”
Segregation touched many aspects of everyone’s life, even popular dance.
However, there were a few USC students, Bill Spivey, Donald Davis, and Harold “Goo-Goo” Wiles, who heard the music and fun coming from the Big Apple Night Club in downtown Columbia and found a way to get inside.
The students were only allowed to sit in the balcony, but they were able to observe some exciting, fast dancing steps and moves that fascinated them. That summer of 1937, as soon as school was out, the students headed for the pavilion at Myrtle Beach to try out the Big Apple dance or “polish the apple.” This is the origin of the Carolina Shag. A reason for whites and blacks to “cross over the Jim Crow rope”—all in the name of fun and music and dance.
Young high school and college students flocked to the beach every summer to join the movement and learn how to dance the Carolina Shag. The Carolina Shag was developed at the same time as the Jitterbug, the Lindy Hop, and the Charleston. However, its long standing popularity has much to say about the dance, the music, and the beach.
Pavilion dance floors and clubs stand out in the memories of those who spent countless summer nights in their youth dancing to the jukebox music and perfecting the steps of the Carolina Shag. Venues such as The Pad, Fat Harold’s, Spivey’s, Duck’s, Crazy Zack’s, and Sonny’s Pavilion have hosted Carolina Shag dancers over the decades.
Save the Last Dance for Me: A Love Story of the Shag and the Society of Stranders was published by The University of South Carolina Press in 2012 and was co-authored by Dr. Phil Sawyer and Tom Poland.
Dr. Sawyer was the unofficial historian of the Carolina Shag and the Society of Stranders (S.O.S.), which was founded in 1980 to revive the dance and bring people back to the Carolina beaches to enjoy the dance from their youth.
Because of declining health, Dr. Sawyer needed a co-author to assist in compiling all the facts and memories he had collected over the years, and Tom Poland was chosen by the University of South Carolina Press for the project.
Dr. Sawyer faced a difficult diagnosis and decline in health, and Poland said publishing Save the Last Dance for Me became a project “in tribute to Dr. Sawyer.” He says they were able to finish Save the Last Dance for Me before Dr. Sawyer’s death.
“ The Prologue” to Save The Last Dance for Me includes the following, “The shag was the dance along the Grand Strand in the late 1940s and early 1950s—a memorable time of classic cars, ice cream sodas, rhythm and blues, cold beer, and nights afire with love. Many would look back on this golden era as the apex of youth and romance… It was a glamorous and chivalrous time. As evening fell, the lights of open-air pavilions beckoned. As gleaming lines of surf broke outside pavilions and clubs, couples danced. Neon Wurlitzers and Rock-Olas gobbled change. Shaggers dances along the leading edge of a pop-culture revolution…”
Next week’s edition of The Columbia Star will feature the history and development of the Society of Stranders, the S.O.S. which now has a membership of over 14,000 fans of The Carolina Shag.
The shag never died! In 1956, my friends and I danced to Green Eyes, Ruby Baby, Annie had a Baby and many other tunes in the Ocean Drive Pavilion. The old gang of us who were there back then gathered , in reunion fashion, at the first SOS ! Gene Swink Laughter was one of the leading organizers of the event. The event has grown exponentially since its beginning and therefore, The Shag, received a huge amount of press all over the two Carolinas and beyond. Shagging was always alive and well…
I’m a historian of Shag and one of the last to know the first generation from the 1920-30’s. Your life story is unavailable to the historical record and needs to be recorded. Please consider contacting me, I’m one of maybe two people left alive who are actually recording the history and also know what came before and after.