Broad Description of St. Louis Shag – by Christian Frommelt

St. Louis Shag is an up-tempo dialect of swing-Charleston developed in St. Louis, Missouri during the mid-1930s. This form of Shag is distinguished from Collegiate Shag and Carolina Shag by its rhythmically diverse eight-count basic and side-by-side starting position. Historically, St. Louis Shag was not a stand-alone dance, but an element of the wider Lindy Hop or jitterbug styles featuring swingouts and acrobatics, often reserved for fast tempos, competitions, and jam circles.

Couple in a Shag pose. From Nick Taconi’s scrapbook.

The merging of African-American dance traditions, which value rhythmic complexity and individual expression, and European partner dance connections, which value lead and follow technique, spurred a canon of American jazz dances during the first decades of the 20th century. Nationally popular jazz dances such as the Finale Hop, Varsity Drag, and the Toddle (aka the Chicago), were taught by professional ballroom instructors, and became highly competitive in St. Louis during the 1920s. Dancers vying for cash prizes and entertainment jobs encouraged new dance innovations, and the various “Hop” dances became generally known as Shag. Between the 1920s and 1930s a new generation of Black dancers and first generation immigrants, especially Italian immigrants, sponged up the latest dance steps, taught friends, siblings, and partners, and created their own dance identities.

What makes St. Louis Shag somewhat unique is its persistence in white working class living rooms, high school gymnasiums, and nightclubs during the 1950s and 60s. While the best dancers continued to create their own signature steps, the Shag became pared down to a handful of key variations on the basic, kick-aways, cross-overs (fall off the logs), and sliding doors, which could be danced to jump blues and rock’n’roll music, and even mixed in with the newest dance trends like the Hully Gully.

In contemporary swing dance communities across the globe, St. Louis Shag retains its fundamental characteristics, and is used in social dances, choreography, and competitions either as a stand-alone style and/or hybridized with Lindy Hop, Collegiate Shag, and Balboa.