Members of the Mountain Empire Shag Society (MESS) spend their Monday evenings mingling and dancing at the Johnson City Holiday Inn. However, the description of this club sounds more scandalous than its actual meeting activities.
The room has about 60 men and women between the ages of 21 and 90 years old sitting at tables with drinks in hand. President Carl Edwards makes announcements about upcoming events and fundraisers, and introduces the DJ for the evening. Edwards encourages beginners or those who wish to refine their dance skills to join him and his wife, Lana, out in the hall for a short lesson.
“Starting at 7:30, we give people the chance to learn how to shag before the dance starts,” Edwards said. “Things tend to wind down around 9:30 pm because the DJs have real jobs they must deal with on Tuesday morning.”
Participants don’t need to come with a partner nor sharpened dance skills. All they need is to be open to the music and the people around them.
“The best thing about the shag is not about how good you dance, it’s all the people you meet,” Edwards said. “[There are people] all across the country we never would've met if it hadn’t been for the shag club. Never met one that wasn’t friendly.”
According to Edwards, the main purpose of the club is the preservation that the lifestyle, moves and music present. Carolina Beach music began in the 60s as soul music. “It's about any kind of music you can dance to, blues, rock n roll, and country. If it has a good beat, we’ll dance to it.”
And, dance to it, they will. The dance floor quickly fills up with partners, friends and fellow MESS arounders when DJs Larry "Bigfish" Calhoun and Gary "Big Daddy" Combs drop the beat.
“We’re a fine group of people who like to dance, socialize and have a good time while listening to beach music,” Edwards said. “We promote the shag dance, the music associated with the dance, and the friendships generated through the shag lifestyle.”
Brenda and Wendel Boyd have been club regulars since 1992. Edwards said the club has had a lot of people come and go, but this couple stays. The Boyds were the first to receive the MESS Lifetime Achievement Award, an honor bestowed upon members who’ve served on the board and committees.
“We love the club,” Brenda said. “We’ve made a lot of friends through the years. We’re like a family.” The Boyds encourage anyone to come to a meeting to learn the dance. “If you can count to six, then you can shag,” Wendel said. “That’s all it takes.”
Debbie and Larry “Bigfish” Calhoun are also lifetime members and have been club regulars since 1995. Larry received the Shagging Icon award in 2007 through the Association of Carolina Shag Clubs. This is one of the highest awards within the association. “It’s a lifestyle, really,” Larry said. “We've always liked to shag dance. I had to fake shag dancing when I was a teeneager on the beaches of North and South Carolina. When we got married, we thought about picking it back up again, but there wasn’t anywhere to do it. We stumbled upon shag dances in Kingsport. Three months later, I was the vice president. We just had 20 members back then. We’ve grown a lot.”
The MESS arounders are celebrating their 25th anniversary with a special party. Original members, the founders of the local club in 1992, will join the 127 current members at the summer anniversary party.
Today, the club shags from 7 to 9:30 p.m. every Monday in the 101 West Ballroom at the Holiday Inn in Johnson City. Free basic shag lessons are offered between 7:30 and 8 p.m. in the hallway next to the lounge. Visit messdance.com for more information about how to join the Carolina Beach music lifestyle.