Entries by Jess Dennis


In the old days, it was not cool to learn to Shag in public. You stood rather sheepishly in the crowd and watched the top dancers work out. You tried to mentally photograph their moves. Later, you went home and danced with a doorknob or a bedpost, hour after hour, just to learn the basic […]

Ode to Subtle Wildness

A timeless moon is rising above the memory of a beach town. Beyond the town is a restless ocean, and somewhere near the water’s edge are the dance floors. The people are crowded around unseen jukeboxes. Rhythm and blues music hovers in the air above the old pavilions. Amid the music and the memories, beach […]

Red Hot Heart

In the Land of Shag the dance of romance goes on. Holding hands at the edge of the floor feels dangerous. The music touches you, as it did when the song was new. When young, foolish, and racing to be in love, you fell into it, or jumped, as often as the records on the […]

Say Yes

“Dancing is a vertical expression of horizontal desire,” said Robert Frost, maybe America’s most famous poet. The first time I heard that line quoted I wondered who said it first. I was in a crowd of shag dancers. I can’t remember who told me, but at the time, I asked, thinking “vertical expression of horizontal […]

The Birth of Beach Music

Come the summer of 2017, the Shag, the legendary dance of the South, will celebrate its 74th anniversary of conception. In June of 1943, it came to pass that Race Music, gut-level Rhythm and Blues, the sound later labeled Rock-n-Roll found its way onto jukeboxes along the Carolina coast. The Southern teenagers called it Beach […]

Bermuda Shorts—1968

The best part of me lives for the rhythms of summer, in the neon glow of youth where the songs on the jukebox never change. That old gold music reminds me to dance, for the memory of dancing all night, with a pretty stranger, both her and you growing prettier the longer the night lasted.  […]

History of the Dance

Twenty-three years ago, I wrote a book called SHAG, THE LEGENDARY DANCE OF THE SOUTH.  At Christmas time, in 1995, SHAG was the hottest selling book in the Carolinas, second only to Howard Stern’s Private Parts. How that book came about, who lived and died—nobody got rich, because not enough geniuses agreed on the basic step.  But a girl did […]

Pure Spirit

I fell in love with Betsy in Jacksonville, Florida, while she was out cold. I never saw anything so beautiful as that brave girl’s face. It was not the usual thing to allow a father in the operating room for a C-section. The doctor asked me if I had a strong stomach. My wife pleaded […]

The Luxury of Ideal

Before my father died, I was never in trouble with the law. Daddy prevented me from making early mistakes large enough to follow me through life. The shortcomings he saw in himself, he determined to eradicate in me. His bad temper for one. So that any sign of anger, let alone rage, was a near […]