Shaggers in the heart of Western Branch
Published 2:58 pm Wednesday, January 9, 2019
One and two, three and four, five and six. Marsha Ruth kept repeating the steps as more than 30 pairs of dancers followed instructions from her and Tom Edwards, the two lead instructors on the dance floor at Big Woody’s Bar and Grill in Chesapeake Square Mall.
Older men and women moved carefully on the bar’s tiled floor that was brightly lit on the evening of Nov. 27. The soundtrack was Patti LaBelle and Junior Walker, a “slower” playlist that makes for an ideal beginner’s lesson for Boogie on the Bay Shag Club members and newcomers, especially after Thanksgiving.
“After all that turkey … it’s time to dance it off,” Ruth said.
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The Boogie on the Bay Shag Club consists of 190 active members that come together through a shared enthusiasm for shag dancing. Founded in 1991, the club originally met at a Holiday Inn in downtown Portsmouth.
When that hotel was torn down, the club moved to Norfolk and then eventually to Big Woody’s, partly for the sizable dance floor but also for its central location in Hampton Roads, according to club president Donna House.
“It’s close enough and the people here have been really good to us, plus we’ve been good to them,” House said.
The club meets for Friday night socials each week and Tuesday night shag classes. Members at the Nov. 27 class greeted each other like family over dinner and drinks before lessons begin.
“They’re very friendly, and they’ve got something very friendly in common, which is dance,” or the Carolina Shag, to be precise, House said.
Carolina Shag is a partner dance that’s become popular in national and international dance competitions across the United States. According to Southern Living, the Shag was born on the beaches of South Carolina in the 1940s, when dancers stepped and twirled smoother and faster.
The name solidified in the ’40s and ’50s and has ebbed and flowed in popularity since, according to Southern Living.
“And, as if it couldn’t sound any more Southern, the Carolina Shag has lived on to being described as a ‘cold beer on a warm night with a hot date and no plans for tomorrow,’” the article reads.
The dancers at Big Woody’s were in week four of a six-week beginner class, at which point they know what to do with their feet along with a couple turns, Ruth said. Members often bounce between beginner and intermediate lessons to get comfortable and precise with their movements.
“I’ve been doing it for 27 years, and I still go back to basic classes,” Ruth said. “You learn something new from a different instructor every time.”
She and Edwards have been teaching together for more than 20 years. According to Edwards, the first thing beginners need to have is a desire to learn.
“The second thing that’s a big help is that they have some rhythm,” he said. “If they can tap their feet to the beat of the music, then it’s going to make it easier for them to dance on the beat.”
Some rookies struggle early on but spin their way out of that rut with practice.
“We had some people come through the class who couldn’t find the beat with both hands, but they wanted to learn and they worked on it, worked on it, worked on it,” he said.
Charlie, 43, and Teri, 42, Nunley have been part of the club since February. They started with slow and worked their way up to multiple outings each week, and neither of them had any solid dance experience coming in.
“You just jump right in, take it all in and learn as you go,” Charlie Nunley said.
They were looking for a way to meet new people after he retired from the Coast Guard, Teri Nunley said, and the club has been a great fit.
“So many people will take you under their wings,” she said. “They really help you, (even) outside of the day-to-day instructions.
“It’s just friendly and nice and they want you to get it so you’ll keep coming (back).”
It’s not just foot work and hand positions that draws a crowd of older dancers to Woody’s each week. Most of them are retirees and empty nesters, with some members pushing 90 years old, according to House.
In February, the club sponsors Shaggers at Heart, a workshop and dance weekend in Williamsburg that sells out of more than 200 tickets within just 48 hours. They come together to see old friends and fellow dancers they’ve known for decades. House and her friends have personally seen many wedding engagements between members, as well.
“These people get you through your bad times and your good times,” she said.
Members may be getting up in age, but they’re staying healthy and mobile to the tune of “I Don’t Do Duets.”
“We all have the same thing in common, and we all help and work with each other,” House said. “There’s no age difference when you get out there on the floor.”