Not much is known about the origins of Collegiate Shag. Various theories have been put forward from dance historians like Lance Benishek and Peter Loggins but both admit that it’s not really clear.
One theory is that it developed from a Vaudeville dance step called the Fleahop. I think it’s fair to say that at the end of the 1920’s, the craze for new dances was such that the origins of Collegiate Shag are buried in the origins of the Black Bottom, the Grizzly Bear, the Peabody, the Turkey Trot and other dances that were popular at the time. It’s likely each dance was created as a particular move within a dance by groups of kids around the dancehalls; some of which took hold and became popular, and others were never heard of again. It’s well documented that the “collegiate” element of Collegiate Shag is from it’s popularity with College Kids of the era. However it’s worth noting that in Arthur Murrays’ famous 1937 film in which he teaches Shag, he never once uses the term “collegiate”. Collegiate seems to have come around a little later to differentiate it from other regional forms of Shag, such as St Louis or Carolina.
Arthur Murray found his Shag dancers on the East Coast of the USA . You can see from the 4 couples doing the demonstration in the clip (demo starts at 3:14), that at this stage the dance hadn’t yet developed it’s quirky/goofy styling that is linked with it today. It was still a cool dance that really did cut a rug.
The East Coast style of shag had a much smoother, flatter feel to it than developed on the Western seaboard of the US. The Vitaphone short “Symphony in Swing”, recorded in 1939, featuring Artie Shaw, shows East Coast style to good effect.
As it became more popular, Hollywood on the West Coast, picked up on the fad and started to introduce the dance into it’s romantic comedies, which were great vehicles to include popular music. A more bouncy (knees up) style had been introduced to California in 1934 by a dancer called Connie (Conrad) Wiedell, who can be seen dancing in the 1940 Venice beach clip below (no sound).
A version of Connies’ style is what can be seen in the Hollywood film clips found on YouTube today. It’s worth mentioning at this point, that Ray Hirsch, a Hollywood dancer from back in the day, who can been seen in films such as “Blondie Meets The Boss” and “Mad Youth“, never called himself a Shag dancer let alone a Collegiate Shag dancer, he thought of himself as a Jitterbug! Ray can be seen here in this 1939 clip (in the dark jacket and stripey socks).
As Hollywood played its role in popularising (and recording) the dance, the style became more quirky and animated, until the crazy footwork appeared in cartoon form in the 1946 Walt Disney production of the Benny Goodman number “All The Cats Join In”
Compared to Lindy Hop there is very little in the way of a filmed history of Collegiate Shag. On the surface that is a real shame for those of us who like to study the history of the music and dance we love so much. However it also means that there is plenty of room for us to grow into; for us to create our own history and develop our dance into uncharted territory.
Where do we go from here? Read On!