As a returning resident of North Carolina about 14 years ago, it became clear that being able to dance the shag was an important life skill.
I hadn’t picked it up as a kid when I lived here because it seemed like an old people thing. But the ensuing decades had made that reasoning no longer valid. So my wife and I — I was still married at the time — signed up for some lessons.
By the third lesson, we could do the basic steps and a couple of turns so we were ready to take this show on the road when our instructors invited everyone in the class to be guests at the monthly dance their shag club threw at the Elks Lodge in North Wilkesboro.
So, as embarrassing as it is to admit (and I don’t admit it often), we went to a shag club. Which sounds totally Austin Powers — Swinging London, circa 1966 — but as all of you North Carolinians know, it was none of those things. It was just a bunch of middle-aged people who enjoyed dancing; more precisely, they enjoyed dancing one particular dance, the shag, even with its totally unfortunate name. Perhaps because of its totally unfortunate name.
We had fun, and two weeks later found out there was another shag club in Statesville which had a monthly dance, so yes, I make the even more sordid admission that I’ve been to not one, but two, shag clubs. There were other clubs, and we were assured that with very little effort, the shag club circuit in northwest North Carolina could have us out shagging every weekend but we capped our adventures at the two. Who says small-town life is boring?
Aside from the Austin Powers jokes, it quickly became apparent that there was this whole group of people who had created a sub-culture of their very own, busily shagging away most weekends, unbeknownst to their non-shagging friends, relatives and co-workers. Probably just like people in the other sort of shagging clubs went about their business without anyone knowing much about it.
At the second club in Statesville, we met a couple who were really more swing dancers and what they were doing looked like a lot of fun. Swing dancing had been a thing for a while in those first years of the new millennium and was one of the main reasons we wanted to take the shag lessons in the first place. Shag looked a lot like swing. In fact, I still think it’s a variation though no one will admit it.
Elkin’s a pretty small town but, as luck would have it, it wasn’t long until an opportunity presented itself to take ballroom dancing lessons, so we gave that a shot. And got invited to yet another monthly dance, this one here in Mount Airy.
And discovered yet another subculture. In those days preceding “Dancing with the Stars,” ballroom dancing was not the cultural touchstone it is today. Apart from swing, which seemed to be the bailiwick of annoying hipsters, ballroom dancing was a relic from a time long gone. But here was a significant number of people getting into it, doing their thing, taking lessons, going to dances, some of them competing, all hidden in plain sight, totally flying under the radar of all the non-dancers.
I wondered at the time how many of these little subcultures there were out there with people who are bound together by a common interest or a common passion doing what they do, completely unnoticed by everyone else.
And then last Sunday, I found out that the passions and interests that bind subcultures together are not always pleasant. Sometimes, common suffering does the trick.
This discovery came at a candlelight vigil outside Brenner’s Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem. They have it every year during September in honor of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, so I assumed it would be a big public event to create awareness of the problem, but it turned out most everyone there had been personally affected by childhood cancer.
There were some patients there, some in wheelchairs dragging around IV poles, a little three-year-old girl with pink cowboy boots and faint wisps of blonde hair, playing hopscotch and jumping over the impromptu chalk memorials to the other kids who were not as lucky as she has been thus far.
There were a lot of family members, both of kids who are still fighting and the ones whose fight is over. One of the pediatric oncologists was there, some nurses and others from the ninth floor, people who have chosen to make childhood cancer a part of their life, rather than having it thrust upon them.
Lillie’s Friends, the foundation named in memory of a little girl diagnosed with stage IV neuroblastoma when she was three years old, presented a check for the funds they raised this year, and Lillie’s mom talked to us.
We were all given a chance to remember and speak the name of our lost loved ones. Tatyana’s Nana Brenda spoke eloquently on her behalf, and her parents lit a candle in her memory. It was beautiful and touching. There were songs, and we all turned toward the ninth floor and raised our candles so the kids could see them.
It was about that time that 43 gold balloons were released, one for each of the kids who would be diagnosed with cancer on that day, and are diagnosed on every day. That’s when I lost it. The balloons always make me cry.
So I stood there in the dark, holding my candle in the air and watching 43 golden balloons circle around the sky and slowly disappear into the starry night, all the time sniveling like a baby while I remembered my little Principessa.
I realized then, standing there in that group, that once again, I had found a subculture of people in which I had something in common, but unlike the shag dancers and the ballroom dancers, all with whom I have lost contact, the other people watching the balloons disappear into the night will always be my tribe.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.