Jenny Shirar is a dynamic dancer, teacher, competitor and performer, ercely fond of Shag, especially the version from her hometown, St. Louis. This is what she reckons everyone should know about the Shag, why you should learn it and why she loves it.
– I love shag because it’s fast, highly rhythmic, and I like to move! But St. Louis shag is so much about the stories and the people who grew up in St. Louis. The stories people tell about dancing are stories of their lives, their families, their upbringings, and the history of the city. Shag has always been very connected to home for me–it’s not about doing a cool step or being part of a trend, it’s about knowing and being a part of a history, respecting that history, and being considerate of my place in that history.
As a follower, anything particularly great?
– One of the really powerful and beautiful things about being a follower is, for me, inhabiting all of your movements with yourself. Meaning you don’t have to do anything extra or fancy or contrived to express yourself and your voice–your voice is always with you and yours to use. I feel this particularly strongly in St. Louis shag because it’s such a powerful and active dance that also requires a lot of subtle and intricate movements. It’s fun to explore all those different types of energies. And because it can be so fast, it’s an instance of dance where it’s easy to see and feel what’s always true: that followers have equal ownership of their movement, their choices, and the way they share the dance with a partner.
Describe the feel and look of St. Louis shag!
– A few things that stand out to me about St. Louis Shag are that it tends to be uptempo, and this was always emphasized by shag dancers of previous generations who we learned from.) St. Louis Shag basics are primarily stationary (i.e. you don’t travel much across the floor). At higher tempos, I notice that STL Shag dancers tend to keep their upper bodies pretty still and solid. I also love how two dancers can create amazing shapes in St. Louis Shag! I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t take a chance to quote Tommy Russo, a jitterbug and St. Louis shag dancer who was born in St. Louis in 1916. When Christian, my dance partner, asked him in an interview to describe a dance step, he struggled for a moment: ”you take your partner’s hand…you move…ya step your…you kinda…” and then finally threw up his hands and exclaimed, ”I gotta show ya!” So if I can borrow a frustrating but all-too-real page from the old timer book, I know it when I see it, and I know it when I don’t.
What are the similarities and differences are between St. Louis-, Carolina-, and Collegiate Shag?
– Shag was a term that was kind of synonymous with ”dance” and usually referred to whatever variation or new version of the dance the youngsters were doing, so not all shags are necessarily all that similar. In other words, it was a buzz word like ”big apple”, ”swing,” or jitterbug. St. Louis Shag was a territory dance that originated in St. Louis most likely in the 1930s–rather than being its own dance, it was more like a step or group of steps that dancers would mix into their jitterbug. Carolina Shag comes from the east coast (the Carolinas) and is much smoother, done to slower music and to later styles, in the 1940s and 50s to jump blues and rock and roll. Collegiate Shag has roots on the east coast and in the midwest, but enjoyed a big rise to popularity on the west coast as well. Like St. Louis shag, it is often done to uptempo music, and today, the first Collegiate shag basic that many dancers learn is a 6 count basic, as opposed to the 8 count basic of St. Louis shag. There are quite a few commonalities between dances of this era, such as the types of kick variations and cross steps that show up in both shags (and other jazz dances from the time).
Your favourite song to dance to?
– It would be impossible to pick just one, but I’ve loved discovering the music of Big Bill Broonzy and it’s a lot of fun for shag! There’s also a song called ”Mama Don’t Like” by Smiley Lewis, a sped-up version of which has become, to our great amusement, a kind of anthem for St. Louis Shag dancers around the world!
Your favourite You Tube clip to get inspired from?
– Some great dancers to look up would be John Bedrosian (the St. Louis dancer who originally taught us shag) and Yolanda Ochoa, Jim and Lorraine Byrnes, and Eddie Plunkett and Dottie Spokesfield. Note that most of the footage we have is of these dancers in their later years–how I wish we had more footage from the 30s and 40s!
The interest for Shag increases, why is that?
– I think people are drawn to the energy of St. Louis shag, especially–it just looks and feels cool! I also suspect that people are often seeking ”the next thing” in their dancing, and learning new steps and styles is exciting. From what I’ve observed, it’s more common in Europe than in the USA to have entire events dedicated to just Collegiate Shag, for example. I think it’s also important to recognize the influence that a few very enthusiastic organizers and a few very impressive dancers may have! For example, I think it’s very easy to see what a strong influence Chandrae Roettig and Steven Sayer have had in the European collegiate shag scene. Christian and I are also often amused to see dancers all over the world recreating moves, steps, and patterns that we made up–a lot of the St. Louis shag we see in Europe is stuff that we created, so we always like to be clear about what shag steps you might see the old-timer dancers do, and what steps we’ve iterated on.
Why and what should everyone know about the history of Shag according to you?
– In St. Louis, shag was (as far as we know) danced from the late 20s or early 30s all the way up into the 70s and 80s. One thing that’s particularly interesting about St. Louis Shag is that it was a territory dance–a style that evolved locally. I think most cities and even small towns had their own variants of jitterbug steps, but due to the fact that dancers in St. Louis continued to dance all the way up into the 60s and 70s at places like Club Imperial, we are lucky to know about St. Louis Shag. I think it’s very important to recognize, when talking about the history of any swing dance, that many dances and steps were copied from black dancers by white dancers. Some of this happened as exchange (e.g. Tommy Russo references learning his first dance steps–the Charleston and the ”Rubber Legs” from black kids who were his neighbors), but a lot of it was also just done as pure copying–the white dancers later received credit, recognition, and perhaps increased social and economic opportunities that the black dancers they learned the dance from did not enjoy. An example of this is what happened with the white dancers who observed black dancers doing ”the Big Apple” at the Big Apple Club in South Carolina and then became famous in New York for doing that dance.
What´s the most important thing you want to teach your students?
– I want to encourage people to try and discover the unique dance history of their own cities and towns! I want to teach them to listen to the stories of dancers who came before them and to honor dance history not just by learning and performing the steps well, but by truly caring about the people who came before.