SHAG DANCER’S BIRTHDAY SURPRISE
A friend of mine had a birthday recently: Janet Harrold, the lady who keeps the editorials and party pictures coming from Carefree Times, the one and only newspaper in the Land of Shag. The party was a surprise to Janet, to me as well. I didn’t hear about it until a couple of hours before the music started.
Another friend called me and told me about it: Randy Anderson, who is my oldest and best buddy. Randy and I go back to before either of us can remember. Growing up in Myrtle Beach in the 1950’s, 60’s, and so on, as boys in high school, we learned to shuffle our feet to the basic step of the shag. Neither of us ever got good enough on the dance floor to keep up with Janet Harrold.
I remember the first time I saw Janet. It was at the SOS Fall Migration in 1994, me slouched on the rail just inside the front door of the joint. The music is going, the joint is three quarters full in the mid-afternoon. I’m there doing research for a book I’m trying to write on the history of the dance.
Janet walks in wearing blue jeans and a white top with blue flowers on it — I have a flawless memory for first glimpses of certain people, when over time, that person turns out to be important in my life, especially beautiful women.
I can’t help remembering. I don’t try to do it. Certain people, certain images of a moment, simply stay put, don’t fade, and then pop up again, like now, as though twenty years have evaporated.
I’m watching it happen, sort of like a video is streaming in the dark just behind the lids of my eyes.
She is tall and slim in a pair of blue jeans that look rather comfortable instead of form-fittingly snug.
Her hair is tall too. She wears it in a style that reminds me of the days when women got fixed up carefully to go anywhere. Not a bouffant precisely, but arranged, the way she liked it and meant for it to hold that shape. But not like a helmet of sprayed down hair — it looked free to fly if the wind blew.
She is suntanned just a little. Like she hasn’t really had time all summer to lay out and get nut brown.
She doesn’t have time to flirt either. She is in Ducks for some purpose other than to party, looking for somebody, for some reason other than to shag dance.
However she moves in the posture of a dancer, that is, in the process of moving, she appears in rhythm with a private jukebox. She is self-contained, dancing all by herself.
As her eyes pass over me, I give her a twinkle. It bounces off like a tennis ball.
Doubtless Janet remembers nothing of that moment. It stuck with me because over the next twenty years, again and again, her steady effort to preserve, communicate, and radiate news and goodwill in the Land of Shag, helped me to finally understand what it is about this dance that keeps the music turned on in my memories, and in present time, keeps me coming back to the crowd, again and again, to shag dance.
Janet’s birthday party kicked off at Martini’s Restaurant in the North Myrtle Beach. Martini’s is semi-fancy. It was chosen as a location because getting Janet there under the pretense of a quiet birthday dinner was easy for one of her girlfriends to manage. Janet likes Martini’s, and it isn’t far from where she lives. Anyway, as I said before, I didn’t hear about the party until it was almost ready start. Randy Anderson called and told me about it. I had an unusually busy evening scheduled, two meetings to go to that happen on a monthly basis. So at first, I told Randy I couldn’t make it, to give Janet a kiss for me.
After I hung up, I thought, that as far as the business of my life is concerned, it was more important to go to Janet’s party than attend two monthly meetings where I’m involved with charitable enterprises, both of which are gratifying, but aren’t integral to filling my rice bowl.
I am now 66 years old, rekindling a writing career that started when I published a book about shag dancing. And then I disappeared for twenty years, raising children as a single father on an island without bridge.
All that time away, along and along, I found myself reading copies of Carefree Times, Janet’s newspaper.
I call it “hers” because she seemed to wear all the hats required to publish the paper, again and again. While I was living on Daufuskie Island, cooking, cleaning, and fine-tooth combing my kids’ hair when epidemics of lice showed up in the public school system.
Carefree Times was about the only contact I had with the on-going dance culture. Plainly speaking, back when I wrote the shag book, I was a mercenary, always had an agenda. I saw the shag crowd as a target market. Coming back after twenty years, not a whole lot had changed. My ambition to make a living as a writer still included the obligation to schmooze the audience.
So I weighed the priorities: Janet’s birthday party, or the charitable enterprises. Opportunist that I am, I concluded that since Janet was still publishing Carefree Times, and her birthday came but once a year; I would show up and schmooze her first.
Then the party started. I was there with my oldest friend, Randy Anderson. Arnie Webb came in. Bill Rice was there, Jerry and Marilyn, Chuck and Pam, Jackie Cook, dressed up in a heavy leather cop’s outfit, handcuffs included. Half an hour before Janet showed up, there were twenty or more of her friends waiting to see the look on her face.
I was remembering twenty years gone by, how it had been when I first came to SOS, how the crowd had grown older. My hair had gone gray and my beard had turned silver. All at once, there was something very different.
This crowd of senior citizens, every one waiting for Janet, had a strange sort of light in our eyes.
I had noticed it plenty during SOS a month ago, coming back after twenty years. Maybe the music helped to bring it on, I had thought.
The music you grow up with, listening to it, makes memories of youth more accessible. But at SOS a month ago, it wasn’t memory that invigorated me. It was being in the company of thousands of people of my age, baby boomers, who haven’t quit.
And I don’t quite know what I mean by that:
In the shag crowd, there is a light in the eyes of old boys and older girls, who are silver soldiers in defense of themselves against the frontal assault of age. Birthdays are another chance to laugh. Another reason to turn the music on.
In the Land of Shag, time going by does not erode enthusiasm for the constant surprise of getting back together one more time, asking for one more dance, giving your eyes to twinkle again at the sight of a pretty girl like Janet Harrold.
She comes to Martini’s expecting the same old menu, maybe wondering what the catch-of-the-day will be. Watching her face as she realizes the party is on, surprise, surprise, she wipes away one or two tears, no more.
Janet is ever self-contained, stoic, a silver soldier. In that regard, she wears big hair like a helmet. Age and injuries don’t never show on a face that’s laughing. Radiating gratitude, hugging her friends, she lets herself be carried along in a stream of old time golden music, a dancer.
She hugs me and Randy, and then he and I watch her moving in the crowd, whispering to each other that she sure looks good. Like a dancer.
Happy birthday, Janet.