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Shag @ the Harvest Moon Ball

June 10, 2021

Shag was seen at the HMB from 1936-1939. This is a collection of all the shag sections in the Harvest Moon Ball essays and the dancing in the balls. To see all the Harvest Moon Ball essays, please visit Swungover’s HMB page. Apologies that some of the pictures and articles are displayed huge — WordPress’s recent updates have some serious issues that we were not able to easily fix at the moment.

Venmo: @Bobbyswungover

1936

The Outliers

In 1936, we see the first Shag in the Harvest Moon Ball — Harriet Pierce & Harold Oberman.

Harriet & Harold (Shag)

Let’s say you’re a dancer in 1930’s New York, and you love Shag. You decide to maybe make a statement about how there’s not a Shag division at the Harvest Moon Ball, and so you compete in the Lindy Hop prelims. You are good enough to tie with another couple. (Harriet and Harold dead-tied with another couple and the judges took them both.) 

You make it to the finals…only to be surrounded by an entire performance team of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in your heat. Your chance to show off some Shag may get a little overshadowed.

Of course, we don’t know if that’s what Harriet and Harold were thinking. They might have just been ecstatic to dance their dance in front of 22,000 people regardless. And they should have been proud, as they seem to be the first Shag that was on the Harvest Moon Ball stage. And, as we will find out,  a demand made by Shaggers would indeed  be heard: In 1937, the Harvest Moon Ball would announce its first  “Collegiate Shag” division.

Here’s the entire video for that year:

1937

The “New” Kid

On Aug 12, 1937, the day the Daily News announced the third Harvest Moon Ball, and “Collegiate Shag” appeared in the listing of the divisions.

This year, according to the Daily News, the “Collegiate Shag” was demanded by hundreds of the newly crazed, mostly-student dancers — and when they signed up for the division, they doubled the amount of the applications of the next most popular dance, the Waltz.

Most Lindy Hoppers know Lindy Hop was a product of the Black American culture of Jazz-era Harlem. But what about this newcomer to New York, Shag? Where did it come from? And what are its cultural roots? Before we get the help of some Shag experts to help answer that, try this thought exercise: Imagine for a moment we simply said “You might not know this, but Shag was a ‘White dance.’” How would that make you feel about the dance? What would that mean to you? Would it make you feel uneasy, or perhaps the opposite — more comfortable with its existence? (For instance, a White Shag dancer being convinced it’s a “White dance” might feel comfort in knowing they perhaps don’t have to worry about navigating appropriation as much as a Lindy Hopper might.)

Daily_News_Mon__Jul_12__1937_ (1)
From the Daily News, July 12, 1937.

Now, imagine we said, “You might not know this, but Shag was originally a ‘Black dance.’” Now, how would that make you feel, and what would that mean to you? Did you all of a sudden find Shag “cooler” after that sentence, if you didn’t think it was cool before? Did it make you uncomfortable, knowing there was perhaps more of the problem of appropriation to consider than you had already thought?

And how did you feel that those questions imply a dichotomy — that “White swing dance” and “Black swing dance” are two valid categories in terms of looking at this specific situation?

We’d like to argue that thinking of jazz era partnership dances as “White dances” verses “Black dances” is not a very realistic, or useful, way to view them. First off, we will do so by arguing there’s no such thing as a jazz era dance that doesn’t in some way share ownership with Black American artistic values.

Let’s begin with the music. “Collegiate Shag” as this dance is done today was evolved to jazz and swing music in the jazz era. What are some of the values emphasized in Black American Jazz music? Swung rhythm, improvisation, call and response, individuality interconnected with teamwork, sharing and collaboration between musicians and dancers, and sharing and shining among fellow musicians (such as found in solo trading, cutting contests, and jams). Now then, if a dance done to this music embodies and emphasizes those Black American artistic values, then those values are in its DNA. Even if White people predominantly developed them, they were doing so because they correctly interpreted those Black values in the music. In this sense, any swing dance that emphasizes those same values is tied to Black American dancing values on a fundamental level. Does Shag embody these?

Well, let’s look at the dancing values that Shag commonly shows that are often emphasized in Black American dancing culture, and that were not commonly emphasized in early 1900s European-American dancing culture: constant improvisation, solo dancing expression even within partnership dances, full-bodied dancing (all body parts available for expression), breaking away (partnering without physical contact), emphasis on rhythmic complexity, sharing and shining the dance, and a showcasing of many different personalities within its movement — such as humorous, elegant, fierce, or eccentric movement.

So, it sure looks to us like Shag fundamentally emphasizes Black American artistic values.

(Please note, we’re not saying European-American partner dancing is completely devoid of all of those traits, just that they are just not nearly as emphasized, or in the same characteristic ways.) So, again, even if Shag were developed by White Americans from its very beginning, it still has all the hallmarks of a strong influence from Black American dancing values. (We would make a similar argument for there being Black American cultural values inherent in the Southern California dances, Balboa and “swing.”)   

         

1937 Shag champs interviewed by Ed Sullivan at the Loew’s performance following the Harvest Moon Ball.

Okay, but, what about “Collegiate” Shag’s literal origins? Where did it come from?

Shag historians have differing points of view. Some think it most likely came from vaudeville steps which have Black origins, others think it evolved from a dance named “Shag” commonly mentioned in papers from the Carolinas, created by White teenagers, but which also probably had some roots in Black American dance forms and movement paired together with White American dances. (Whenever dancing from the South is concerned, there’s a pretty good bet Black American values are a part of it, as Black culture has always greatly influenced Southern culture. We will see this happen even more definitively by the creation of the Big Apple this very same year, 1937.)

As far as the Harvest Moon Balls go, its professed “expert” on Lindy Hop and Collegiate Shag was a man named Bernie Sager. Bernie was a very well-known and influential dance instructor at the time. And he had demonstrated the “Collegiate Shag” for the “dancing masters annual convention” in August of 1937, as “the very latest step in ball room fox trot dancing.”  By 1939, he’s being credited with having introduced the dance to Northern ballrooms, perhaps implying by that wording that it came from southern dance forms. And, by 1940, he is mentioned as having personally re-styled a dance step called the flea hop into the “Collegiate Shag” himself:

Daily_News_Fri__Jul_19__1940_
From a Harvest Moon Ball article in the Daily News regarding shag’s passing from popularity — July 19, 1940.

The Shag historians we talked with both agree readers should not take stock in these newspaper reports of Bernie Sager having invented “Collegiate” Shag. It was notoriously easy for people to take credit for things in this time, when information was scarce, no one was documenting the history of social dancing, and newspaper stories like these were lucky if they survived a week in people’s memories. It’s complex, but realistic, to know that good stories were often more important than truth to people’s success, and it was easy and common to get away with those stories at the time. That’s most likely why the “Collegiate Shag” went from being “introduced by Bernie Sager to the North” to being invented by Bernie Sager in just a few years of newspaper stories.

Regardless of its mysterious and most-likely-complex origins, the Collegiate Shag swept the ballrooms of New York. Being done by mostly White youth and college students, the Shag dancers even overtook and overcrowded the Savoy ballroom during the rage, according to Norma Miller (as told in a personal interview).

Daily_News_Thu__Aug_5__1937_
From the prelims held at the Playland Casino.
From the 1937 Program
03 shag winners Daily_News_Thu__Aug_26__1937_
1937 shag couple Daily_News_Thu__Aug_26__1937_

Winners

The shag winners were announced before the Lindy Hop: Ruth Scheim & John Englert, 1st. Joan & Gene Biggins, 2nd. And Virginia Hart & William Ledger, 3rd.

Here is the video for that year:

1938

The Collegiate Split

Banner Daily_News_Sun__Jul_17__1938_ (1)

In our 1937 essay we discussed the rise of Collegiate Shag’s popularity in New York, and the introduction of its own division to the Harvest Moon Ball. Then, in a separate essay, we discussed the Big Apple dance craze that swept America in the fall of that year. Well, take a look at this fascinating article that appeared in the early stages of the 1938 HMB announcements: (If you don’t want to read it, we paraphrase it right after.)

1938 BIG APPLE shag vs other shag Daily_News_Sat__Jul_23__1938_
From the Daily News, July 23, 1938.

To paraphrase: After only a year since the first Collegiate Shag division, the Harvest Moon Ball dance committee had felt that Collegiate Shag had become almost two different dances. This, they theorized, was because a lot of the ways youth were dancing it were being influenced by the Big Apple craze, thus creating a new style of Shag that most likely involved a lot of breaking away, acrobatics, and adding other dance steps to the mix.

One can infer from the article that the committee labelled Ballroom dances as partnered dances with no breaking away, which they felt the original, non-Big Apple-Collegiate Shag style fell under. One can also infer from the article that they believed the new Big Apple-Collegiate Shag dance was becoming too “acrobatic,” “vulgar,” and “lewd” for a smooth ballroom dance. (They also seemed to forget that the name “college” is right there in the name.) So, the committee urged those “Big Apple type” Collegiate Shag dancers to enter the Lindy Hop division, and reserve the Collegiate Shag division for “Collegiate Shag proper” — the “smooth,” “graceful,” “vital” ballroom dance. 

Let’s briefly dive into some of the layers of what might have been going on behind this article.

One possibility is that these Ballroom Dance community leaders were attempting to keep a grip on the “Collegiate Shag,” and its name, in order to keep it a Ballroom dance by their definitions, ideals, and tastes — rather than allowing for the organic evolution of the youthful street dance to define and redefine itself. The tastes of the Ballroom Dance Committee almost certainly could be categorized as Middle-class/Upper-class Euro-centric American adult tastes, it’s important to note for our further discussion. 

The fact that the committee looked at the dancers doing the “Big Apple type” Collegiate Shag, and saw something they felt belonged more to the Lindy Hop division, meant they were probably picking up on some things about the nature of folk swing dances, but not on others. If we were to guess, they probably looked upon a floor of young Shag dancers mixing lots of different steps, experimenting, breaking away from each other, shining and showing off, and feeling comfortable moving a lot of different body parts — and correctly saw signs of things this new Shag style shared in common with values seen in Lindy Hop. (Values that are a core part of Black American artistic values, by the way.)

What they probably missed is that Lindy Hop is conceptually a pretty different dance than Shag. For instance, one of the most fundamental differences is that Collegiate Shag’s basic overall movement is based on hopping, while Lindy Hop’s (ironically) isn’t — it’s more of a walking/running dance. And this one fundamental difference changes greatly the way momentum is used, how dancers travel, and what expression comes out of the dance. And all evidence we’ve seen shows that, though Shag and Lindy can have very similar spirits, and be danced to the same type of music, those mechanical differences were pretty well adhered to by those dancers at the time; Collegiate Shaggers of this time did not look like they were doing Lindy Hop, and vice versa.

Then there’s a deliciously striking line in the article. As if to subtly contradict the committee is has been reporting, the article’s author Roger Dakin wonders how the Big-Apple-Shag dancers will do going up against “the Lindy Hop fundamentalists from the Savoy Ballroom.” Dakin, perhaps, saw the soul of the Savoy Ballroom for what it truly was. Yes, Lindy Hop was a “liberal” dance — but it was still a very specific dance, a dance with specific values and specific unspoken rules; a dance that someone, even an entire neighborhood, could be fundamentalist about.

In our 1937 HMB essay, we mentioned we didn’t know why there was no “Collegiate Shag” prelim held at the Savoy, even though Shaggers were nightly filling up the ballroom to dance. Here we possibly have found our reason. When it came to Swing, the Savoy and its dancers were strictly Lindy Hop fundamentalists.

So, was all of this, in a sense, Ballroom dance attempting to stake a claim over the young Collegiate Shag, taking it in, making it wear nice clothes and learn good table manners? There were certainly good business reasons for doing so — the dance had gotten a lot of youth into the ballroom dancing studios. But then there’s the question of race, which seems to hide under the bed and in the closets of every room in America: Were the Ballroom dance leaders consciously, or subconsciously, trying to keep Black Artistic values — easily code-worded as “acrobatic,” “lewd,” and “suggestive,” — away from their ballrooms, their dances, and their students? We don’t have definitive answers to these questions, and don’t mean to imply we do. But we also can’t help but feel there’s a collision of different ideas about race, age, and class in this article that make it very hard to unravel. You know, typical America.

1938 Pic George Ricker and Norma Miller Daily_News_Thu__Sep_1__1938_

Images)

UNITED STATES – AUGUST 31: Daily News Harvest Moon Ball. Helen Kober and Charles F. King whip out some genuine jitterbug stuff in the shag contest. Like his jacket?, (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Here is the video for this year:

1939

The Ignored Dance

In the only 1939 Harvest Moon Ball newsreel we’ve found, there is no footage shown of the Shag division. But, the Daily News provided some great pictures and an interesting article piece.

1939 picture of shag couple prelims Daily_News_Tue__Aug_22__1939_
roseland pic
1939 HMB program
shag winners
1939 shag finals pic
1939 Final pictoral spread shag pic Daily_News_Thu__Aug_31__1939_

Check out this fascinating snippet from a review of this year’s ball: (We paraphrase below for those who don’t care to read it.):

1939 post ball REALL YINTERESTING opinions Daily_News_Thu__Aug_31__1939_

So, this reviewer feels Collegiate Shag is not as wild as it once was, and the Shag dancers dressing up in showy costumes is against the collegiate spirit of the dance.

Though shag was not shown in any newsreels we have of this year, here is the footage:

1940

Exit Shag, Enter Conga

The 1940 Harvest Moon Ball began with this article:

1940 rise of conga death of shag in HMB Daily_News_Fri__Jul_19__1940_

The “Collegiate Shag” division was finished at the Harvest Moon Ball. It is probably strange to the modern student of these dances that the event felt the Shag and the Lindy Hop were, for “all intents and purposes,” “identical.” We can’t help but feel they looked at both and simply saw expressive dance being done to swing music and called it a day mentally. (We discussed this in some depth earlier in the 1938 section, as similar claims were made at the time.)

The Conga dance that would replace it would only last in the Harvest moon Ball for two years.

Finally, here is the breakdown video of ALL of the Shag in the Harvest Moon Ball footage we’ve found, put together, for easier viewing. (It will appear on YouTube one week after publication at Swungover’s channel.)

Venmo: @Bobbyswungover

Sources & Thanks

  • HUGE THANKS to Ryan Martin and Forrest Outman for sharing their time, resources, expertise, and insight with me in helping me understand Shag history. (Any misunderstandings in the article are my fault, not thier’s.)
  • Huge shout out to Sandy Lewis and her partner Marti Gasol for the fantastic work they’ve done in breaking down some of this Harvest Moon Ball Shag dancing for new generations, and to all Shag teachers who keep passing on the torch.
  • All photos and articles are from the Daily News newspaper. Researchers: Opening the images into a new tab will show their file name, which includes their publication date.
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