When in Burlington, Do As the Shaggers Do
Somewhere there used to be a law on the books in Burlington, North Carolina, that decreed that every able-bodied person shall learn to shag before entering the work force. Likewise, one of the requirements for graduation from dear old Williams High School was shag proficiency. Two left feet, extreme shyness or pathological fear of germs was no excuse ‘— everyone must learn to shag and that’s just the way it was. They didn’t care if you had a full ride to Harvard, if your clumsy ass couldn’t shag by 12th grade you were going to summer school ’til you figured it out. The deal was you don’t walk if you can’t shag.
Luckily, I picked up on the Burlington Law early in life and thus was spared a childhood of being an outcast, reject and social pariah. I remember by 6th grade I was doing a pretty mean jitterbug, white bucks and all, although my gyrations more closely resembled Gomer cutting a rug with Mary Grace than the smooth steps the older guys in town whom I idolized were doing. They were the ones who drove loud hot rods, ’55 Fords and ’57 Chevys mainly, and rolled their Luckies up in their T-shirt sleeves, and wore taps on their shoes, and poured salt in their draft beer at Ritchie’s Drive-In, and had names like Fuzz and Peanut and Cookie and Termite. And, man, could they ever shag. By watching those guys and emulating their steps, it was not hard to figure out that the twirling dervish moves I’d picked up from ‘“American Bandstand’” weren’t going to cut it in Burlington less-than-polite society. In the shag less is more, the trick is to make it look like it’s effortless, like you came out of the womb doing this stuff. It’s as if gravity has an effect on everyone else but you and your partner. The Russians could’ve dropped an A-bomb on Graham, and the smoothest of the smooth would never miss a step.
Around 8th grade I had an epiphany. Back then they used to hold weekly dances during the summer on top of the deck beside the city-run swimming pool. We lived maybe a half-mile away and I could hear the music from our house if the wind was right. So I’d jump on my bike and pedal over there, just to watch the older kids shag. And once there, it took no time at all to realize why the Burlington Law existed.
There was this one guy who was always the center of attention. He was overweight, had a rather bad complexion, didn’t dress particularly well, wasn’t at all good looking; he had no discernable studly characteristics except one. Lord have mercy could that guy ever shag. He was light on his feet and easy to meet and, as the old saying goes, had to beat the women off with a stick.
It dawned on me that the ability to dance was the great equalizer. This guy wasn’t a jock, wasn’t a brain, didn’t have money, didn’t drive a hot car, didn’t wear Madras shirts, monogrammed sweaters or Nettletons, yet the girls couldn’t keep their hands off him.
By God if I hadn’t learned to shag by then, that sealed the deal.
There was one move in particular that separated the ultra cool cats from the regular cool cats. By now I was 16, an aspiring hood, eager to do what all aspiring hoods did ‘— go to North Myrtle Beach, or OD to us members of the Burlington hoi polloi. So a bunch of us packed in my buddy’s car and headed south. There were secondary destinations there, but the primary one was the Pad, already a mythical haunt by the early ’60s. We were too young to get in, but it seems we were able to peer through a latticework fence and catch glimpses of all those world-class shaggers inside.
Now, there was a corollary to the Burlington Law that kicked in once you turned 18, called the PBR Rule. It mandated that a tall Pabst Blue Ribbon must be held in the hand that is not holding your partner’s, and that the pinky on the hand cradling the tall Blue must be extended at all times. Plus, there was another unwritten rule, but it only applied to the pros: a cigarette, preferably unfiltered, should also be held in the first two fingers of the PBR hand, which, with the obligatory extended pinky, left only the ring finger and thumb to grasp that precious can.
So, here’s where the thing of beauty came in. Every 10 or 15 seconds you need to twirl your partner, and about every third twirl you need to change hands. The future Hall of Famers were able, at the apex of the twirl, to switch both the beer and the cigarette from one hand to the other without losing an ash or spilling a drop. I swear, watching them in action would take your breath away.
I worked on that move for years and years and by the time I was almost getting it down, wouldn’t you know it, I had to quit smoking and drinking. But, hey, I can still dream.
Ogi can be reached at email@example.com, heard each Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. on ‘“The Dusty Dunn Show’” on WGOS 1070 AM, and seen on ‘“Triad Today’” Friday at 6:30 a.m. on ABC45 and Sunday at 10 p.m. on UPN48. His blog is backtothegarden-ogi.blogspot.com.