I love showing people something good they haven’t seen before. It’s an unsung pleasure of life introducing a new experience. In the bargain, as a veteran, you’re given a fresh vision of the totally familiar, like it’s your first time as well.
Courtney and Greg Cordell were newcomers in The Land of Shag, had never been to a gathering of dancers committed to party for days. At my instigation, they arrived for Mid-Winter SOS. I had put together a shag-dance-experience vacation package that was auctioned for charity at a gala in Greenville, South Carolina. Courtney and Greg had been the buyers. Not knowing me, never having attended a Society of Stranders dance party, they didn’t know what to expect.
Greg is a marketing and public relations specialist, self-contained, quietly observant, a guitar player when time allows. He is drawn to unique and shiny subjects of interest, such as his wife. Courtney is the bright-eyed enthusiast, a kindergarten teacher, accustomed to being in the spotlight for an audience of children. The dominant expressions of her personality, not unlike those of kindergarten students, are joy and curiosity. The Cordells are having a successful marriage, still raising children, building careers. They were a little younger than the average partygoers.
SOS events are singular. I don’t know of another circumstance in America that brings together Baby Boomers — senior citizens the thousands — who arrive with the prideful intent of dancing, laughing, and staying awake until exhaustion arrives. It simply isn’t done for other motives I’m aware of. Shag dancing generates an energy
On a tour of the dance clubs Friday night we were escorted by Janet Harold, editor of the shag culture’s official newspaper, Carefree Times.
Ahead of me, the others disappeared as if swallowed. The only way to catch up was to levitate and fly.
All around me faces glowed. I even saw one I recognized. H. Lee beamed at me, and I beamed back at him. He pointed to his girlfriend and we all beamed at each other. Our mouths moved and sounds came out, joining the collective buzz. Nothing more of understanding was needed or possible.
Those attempting to pass through the crowd moved in a narrow vein, some going my way, others wedging in the opposite direction. Twice I met old friends. We hugged each other and exchanged a few words, some of which we apprehended. All around the emotion between strangers was acceptance of each other. The dance floor was solid with people linked in rhythm. If the mob had a soul, this is where it wanted to shine.
Either you experience the crowd as a positive element in SOS energy, or you have a clear motive for impatience and irritation. A mob this size would have been ordinary, average among college students on spring break. Here we were mostly senior citizens. In my experience, each SOS event is a cultural phenomenon. I don’t know of anyplace else in America where Baby Boomers come together in these numbers and
The size of the crowd is part of the magic. We’re Baby Boomers, the generation that invented the Age of Rock n Roll, that volunteered for the sexual revolution, and built a nation that ended the Cold War. In the crush of the crowd, you feel an almost bizarre togetherness. Bizarre, only because the sense of community, of shared experience with hundreds, thousands of our generation all in one pile is rare, even unique. Where else in America, but during SOS in The Land of Shag, do so many senior citizens in concert refuse to retire from laughing, dancing, and romance?
It is worth considering, that the shag happens to have been the first social dance invented to interpret early Rock n Roll, rhythm and blues, the music that transformed popular culture in America and around the world. In some real sense, SOS celebrates that tap root connection with history.
The newcomers, Greg and Courtney Cordell, were unaware, as no doubt many in the crowd, who are veterans, are unaware, of the underlying significance of the dance. And it doesn’t matter. The collective spirit of SOS reflects an intimate connection with something larger than the crowd. Something good. Something catalytic that brings us together as silver soldiers, male and female, marching in virtual lock step into the time of life when it seems expected we should all sit down and watch as the world flies on, the future unfolds without our influence, and our energetic presence, not needed, is uncalled for. Fat chance.
In The Land of Shag we’re an army. Newcomers of all ages, creeds, and colors are welcome, automatically recruited for basic training in the basic step of the shag dance.
Greg and Courtney were dazzled by the sheer number of people. Greg had visited a website related to SOS, watched a video, and had the idea that he and Courtney were headed for a gathering of perhaps a hundred or two dancers spread out around the greater North Myrtle Beach area. Here they’d landed at ground-zero of a cultural phenomenon heretofore unknown to either of them.
Greg Cordell is 54 years old. Courtney is a little younger. You could tell from the way they moved in the crowd, looking out for each other, they’re a practiced team, still in love, having a successful marriage. Courtney is the bright-eyed enthusiast, a kindergarten teacher, accustomed to being in the spotlight animating lessons for an audience of 27 miniature humans. The dominant expression of her personality, not unlike that of a kindergarten student, is full of joy and curiosity. Greg is more self-contained, quietly observant; he’s a co-founder of “Brains on Fire” an established public relations and marketing firm with a national league reputation. Under the influence of a dose or two of exotic craft beer, his smoldering imagination comes through. He is automatically drawn to unique and shiny subjects of interest, such as Courtney. The shag crowd fascinated them.
They and Janet Harold were waiting for me on the edge of the big, front room dance floor. I was feeling energized by the crowd. The mob-mentality had hold of me, such that I was swept up by the momentum of an old Rock n Roll song — I don’t remember which one, but a tune that I’ve been hearing since high school; which triggered sensations of a youth, the way music does — and I asked Janet Harold to dance.
Now as a shag dancer, Janet is the real deal, whereas I have a certain ability to appear as if I am cruising through a song, taking it easy, while in fact I could be fancy if I chose to be. The fact is, all I really know is the basic step, but that is plenty, and all you need. In the shag crowd, even a great dancer will partner with you if you ask her. So Janet couldn’t refuse. I was showing off for Greg and Courtney, thinking their experience should include me demonstrating how to at least look like a dancer, so I let them have it.
With Janet Harold, you don’t have to do much. If you can keep from stepping on her foot and breaking it, Janet makes you look good. I did accidentally nudge her toes a couple of times, prompting her to laugh, and ask how long it had been since I danced. The song ended before toes were broken. Courtney and Greg were reassured that limited ability was no excuse for not dancing. Then I wanted them to see what it looked like when a couple of real shaggers got into the rhythm.
We wormed our way on through the crowd at Fat Harold’s, out the front door, into the chilled, January evening. The streets were alive with shaggers taking a rest from the crush indoors. Once you were out of the crowd, the open air was a relief and a pleasure to feel. but you had to go through the crush to get the pleasure.
Across the street at Ducks, on the small dance floor in the room downstairs, you could always see top dancers. The Cordells and I found a few square feet of standing room at the edge of the floor. There, right in front of us, a couple who had obviously been dancing together, practicing and taking lessons for some time, were cutting it up to a song I love. I don’t know the title, but the hook line is “Tonight I need a doughnut and a dream.”
And this big, heavy-set guy, intent on the rhythm, is spinning a woman built something like a sister of Kim Khardashian, both light on their feet as party balloons. The guy has a face you would want to see coming to save your ass in a desert war zone, not a handsome lad, but a serious man enjoying himself with a dance partner he knew well. He wore a gray silk shirt — it looked like silk to me, an expensive, custom made garment heavily embroidered between his shoulders — blazoned with, “Lock and Load”, above a quasi-military unit symbol, saying something underneath about a bomb squadron. As he and his partner kept in a constant swirl, I never got a real good look. Greg Cordell and I glanced at each other, saying the same thing, the scene was surreal: the warrior and his voluptuous doll baby in rhythm with a lyric, “Tonight I need a doughnut and a dream.”
Around the big dance floor upstairs, passage through the crowd at Ducks was another squeeze. The cold air outside was again pleasurable. Janet led us to the Pirate’s Cove, where it wasn’t as crowded.
Greg and Courtney danced.
They had the rhythm of each other. You couldn’t call it shag dancing precisely. I hesitated to remind them that part of their experience tomorrow would be a dance lesson with Sam West, the guru of shag instructors. Why mess around with a form that worked for them? They were having fun.
We wound up at The Spanish Galleon, watching live music, The Band of Oz. It was then 11 o’clock, two hours past my bedtime. The newcomers had worn me out. They were ready to stay up late, doing what the crowd does at SOS, keep on being kids again as long as the music lasted.
The next morning, I met them for the dance lesson, introduced them to Sam and Lisa West. It turned out Sam was teaching an intermediate class, not a beginners lesson in the basic step. Greg and Courtney told me not to worry, they would adjust to whatever complexity Sam devised. Me knowing they were about to jump off into the deep end of the pool, I asked Sam and Lisa to keep an eye on them. It all worked out. We got back together for dinner that night. They told me how lost they had been when the class started, how Sam and Lisa had helped them compensate. They had come away a sense of accomplishment.
Being their host for the weekend had been a blind date indeed. But I found myself in excellent company instead of being saddled with wallflowers. Introducing them to SOS woke me up again to the energy of youth in the crush of dancers.
Courtney and Greg received SOS membership cards as part of their vacation package. They both have active careers, are the parents of teenaged twins. Who knows when time will allow them to join the crowd at SOS again. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them back next year, in Mid-Winter Wonderland.
SOS puts a hook in you. It’s addictive. Not like a drug you take, but an action you engage in, a kind of exercise that brings on pleasure inducing hormones. It might be just the dancing, though it’s got to be the music too. And the laughter, as well as the odd and frequent coincidence of finding people at SOS you didn’t expect, haven’t seen lately, perhaps in thirty years.
Greg and Courtney ran into Greg’s ex-step-father, whom he has affection for and hadn’t seen in some time, had no idea his former step-daddy would be at the party. That kind of thing is a common occurrence at SOS.
All together, it’s a worthwhile mission, introducing newcomers to The Land of Shag. Try it sometime. If you’re a crowd-weary veteran, you might find yourself seeing with fresh eyes again, the wonder of the crush at SOS.