So this past weekend the Penn State Swing dance club threw a unique event, Shagception a full two days of Collegiate Shag workshops taught by David and Chelsea Lee from Washington D.C.
It was a fun weekend which I intend to write a more in depth post about later, but for now I wanted to write about a problem I seriously had to deal with with preparing for this event. How do I DJ for a Collegiate Shag event?
Before I started contacting people my only preconceived notion for what to DJ for a Collegiate Shag event was from Camp Hollywood Shag division competitions I witnessed personally. Namely 2009 where they played Everybody Loves My Baby by Glen Miller and 2010 where they played Oh Lady Be Good! by Artie Shaw. In addition to that I had the All The Cats Join In, Disney short featuring music by Benny Goodman  and the song Mr. Ghost Goes to Town from the classic Arthur Murry Shag clip.
Yehoodi Lends a Hand
First thing I did was as usual use the search function in Yehoodi which come up with the topic: “Balboa-Collegiate Shag Music for Practice?“. One useful quote from the topic was,
You need a narrower range of tempos for shag. For shag, on the low end 180 and up. There are some songs that I particularly associate with shag. “All the Cats Join In” Benny Gooodman, “Lady Be Good” Artie Shaw. These are good ones to practice to because they aren’t too fast. As you get more comfortable try practicing to a version of Bugle Call Rag which is on the higher side of the tempo range. – Lamar
So from this I gleaned that for songs that are danceable for Collegiate Shag its probably more comfortable to go 180 BPM. As I have learned personally through trial and error, it is awkward to try to dance Collegiate Shag to slower tempos. Another useful quote was,
I feel shag in songs that have a strong “bounce” rhythm, although you shouldn’t have a huge bounce in your shag basic. – Capt Morgan
I’ve heard this described by different dancers as a “chug” rhythm, a solid four beat or in this case a strong “bounce” rhythm. For me what this meant was stay away from small group combos and songs that have long periods of dragging out or solos with the rest of the band not coming back in.
SwingDJs.com Helps Out As Well
Another useful resource was a thread titled “Collegiate Shag Please?” on swingdjs.com. One thing I noticed is Artie Shaw’s music is mentioned several times in the thread with recommendations such as “The Carioca”, “The Man From Mars”, “Diga Diga Doo”, “Back Bay Shuffle”, “Free Wheeling”, and “Bird Calls”. What I inferred from this is Shaw tunes are considered a safe bet and will get people out on the floor for Collegiate Shag, similar to how Lavender Coffin will put life back into a dead room at Lindy events (in spite of it being overplayed at times).
An interesting comment from Capt Morgan was,
Collegiate Shag is a dance from the 30’s, and is inherently connected to the music of this era (more so than Lindy Hop). Dancing to Neo-Swing, or Rockabilly, or Bebop just doesn’t fit.
Lorenzo, a Los Angeles swing band musician notes,
I picked some of the songs listed below for the preliminaries of a Collegiate Shag contest, after a discussion with Sailor Mike Mizgalski (two time NJC Shag Champion). The general guideline to pick a good Shag is to look for a bouncy feeling.
Steamboat Bill, Mora’s Modern Rhythmists (1996) – 200 bpm
Darktown Strutter’s Ball, Sidney Bechet (1945) – 220 bpm
Too Wet To Plow, Cliff Bruner (1944) – 230 bpm
You Just Take Her, Bob Wills (Tiffany Transcriptions 1947) – 210 bpm
Again I notice the pattern of staying above the 180 BPM mark and a consistent rhythm through out most or all of the songs listed.
With a Little Help From my Friends
Unfortunately I did not save the exact transcriptions of the advice (with the exception of Morgan), but Augie Freeman, Morgan Day, and David Lee all helped to provide insightful advice that I shaped my playlist around.
Something that Augie mentioned that was particularly useful was not to keep the tempos blazingly fast the whole night. Which I did try to keep that piece of advice in mind for my playlist.
The most important thing is to have a really strong “chug” on every single beat. Personally I stick with music by Jonathan Stout. A good range is 170 – 200 bpm for lessons. If you teach too slow, people won’t get the feeling of shag.
Again the reinforcement of two concepts covered previously in Yehoodi and swingDJs.com.
Difficulty of the Crowd
One big issue I had was I had three very different type of attendees to please for this event:
- Ridiclously good Collegiate Shag dancers who were all in this competition.
- Newbie Collegiate Shag dancers who in many cases had 1-4 hours of instruction that day.
- Random dancers who showed up to the dance who have no knowledge of Collegiate Shag.
So my compromise was play tunes with a really solid “chug” rhythm but try to hug around the 180 BPM range. I threw a few faster ones in the for the advanced dancers like Rigamarole by Mora’s Modern Rhythmists and Digga Digga Doo by Jonathan Stout and his Campus Five. I also threw in Eddie Lang’s Dinah for those who may have been intimidated by the consistent 180+ range at I stayed at for my set. In addition I included Django Reinhart’s I’se A Muggin because of its laid back feel and the fact I knew there were a few Balboa dancers in the room.
While in retrospect I would have tweaked a few things with my set, I think it went over fairly well. Two songs that worked fairly well I think that I haven’t seen recommended for Collegiate Shag in the past was Caprice XXIV Paganini and King Porter Stomp, both by Benny Goodman.
If you have DJ’ed for a Collegiate Shag event or have opinions on the matter as a Collegiate Shag dancer I would love to hear them, the more resources we have on the topic the better.
 If you DJ All the Cats Join In, unless if you have a ton of newbies my personal opinion is stick with the non Disney-version. The reason why is the Disney sound effects cover up a very beautiful piano solo.
5 thoughts on “DJing for A Collegiate Shag Event”
Great post and clues for DJing for shag dancers. Just want to highlight one point you made that there is no need to push the tempos all night. You did a good job at shagception of bringing the tempos down to 150 and below. Cause there is no need to shag to every song. As to striking the right balance of tempos, I think DJing for balboa dancers is more or less the same as you would want to DJ for shag dancers. Balboa and shag are very comfortable between 180-240. Of course, unlike shag, balboa can be done slower than 180 and both can be done faster than 240 BPM.
Also the rhythm section is very important. It is nice to have a more pronounced bounce to the rhythm section for shag but not required. Just like balboa, I would avoid the late 40’s and early 50’s “in the pocket” feel (aka New Testament Basie).
You are right that certain songs can put the energy back on the floor at a shag centered dance. For dancers that have been in the scene awhile, certain songs are associated with clips we have scene over and over. So songs like “Lady Be Good” remind me on the awesome dancing in the Artie Shaw clip and inspire me to bring it. So it’s good to have these types of songs dispersed through the night to keep the room inspired.
Just like lindy and balboa shag can be done to any of the swing music played in the scene today as long as the tempo is suitable, but if you are aiming for an authentic look, stick with the big bands. Shag is an energetic dance and the energy of a full orchestra really brings out the full aesthetic of shag.
Thanks for a great event!
Yeah, I agree with everything David just said.
You might also want to keep in mind that shag was born around 1928 and was probably ‘raised’ with Hot Jazz. Later, when it matured, it was done more-so to the Big Band Era sound, like Dave was pointing out. [That’s the stuff I like best for shag – the up-tempo late 1930s stuff by Artie, Benny, Gene Krupa, John Kirby, Tommy Dorsey, and Jimmie Lunceford etc. etc.] But, as I was saying, hot rhythm, depending upon the song, can also be really good for shag. And shag, when danced in that manner, mixes nicely sometimes with 20s Charleston.
As a general rule, when thinking about what music to play for any group of swing dancers, I try to ask myself what a song makes my body want to do. I mean, that’s how these dances came about to start with. Folks were just moving their bodies the way the music told them to. And eventually patterns emerged …and we call these patterns shag, balboa, lindy, etc.
This is wonderful Just what I needed tonight. I’m writing a sequel to my fictional novel The Girl in the Jitterbug Dress (www.girlinthejitterbugdress.com) and my music is on another computer. I need music to set the scene for a collegiate shag jam in the 40s. I love this! So happy to find your blog!
I’m glad I can be of help, best of luck with your novel!