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Remembering the Days — The Waltz, the One-step and shag: Dance across the decades at USC

Remembering the Days - episode 58

For two centuries, social dances have been knitted into the fabric of the campus social scene at Carolina. Waltzes, the One-step, shag and hip-hop—the style of dance changes but the beat goes on. 


Once a month in front of the Russell House on Greene Street, you can feel the beat on the University of South Carolina campus. It’s called Hip Hop Wednesdays, and students show up to show off their best dance moves.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re shuffling across the dance floor all the way back to the 1800s and up to the present to see how dancing has always been part of the social scene at Carolina.

You might still like to cut the rug with dance moves of your own or you might have two left feet like me, but it doesn’t matter — this will be fun twirl. And stick around at the end — I’ve got some news to share with you about myself and this podcast. But for now, on to the dance floor!

Waltzes and quadrilles were popular dances in the early 1800s, followed by the polka craze of the mid-1800s. In the latter part of the 19th century, not long after the Civil War, a style of dance called the German became the latest thing — it was sort of like what we now call ballroom dancing. German Clubs sprung up across the country, and students at Carolina formed one in 1884.

A month later, they held their first dance in the home of the university president, John McBryde. The next year, the senior class revived the Commencement Ball, which was held at the State House. A string band from Charlotte provided the music, and the dancing continued until the break of day. Tickets to the ball cost $5 — a huge sum back then — and detailed accounts of the swanky affair describe the men wearing spike tail coats and high silk beaver hats to impress the fair ladies who accompanied them to the dance.

In 1896, not long after the first women were admitted to Carolina, the institution’s first officially recognized co-ed social function was held — a small dance in a private home near campus.

By 1910, the building we now call Longstreet Theater had been turned into a gymnasium, and it became the new venue for the Commencement Ball. The new dance craze around that time was the One-step … you might also know it by one of its many variations, the Fox Trot. It was a modern dance — perhaps a little too modern for the crusty professors at Carolina back then because they refused to permit students to dance the One-step at the Christmas Ball. They said it was “essentially immoral.”

When I read that in one of the history books about the university, it piqued my curiosity so I got on YouTube and watched videos of the One-step and some of its variations — the Grizzly Bear and the Camel Walk — and they looked like quaint dances from more than a century ago, not at all risque. Something tells me that students probably found a way to circumvent that edict from the professors.

By the 1930s, dancing was one of few cheap things for Carolina students to do during the midst of the Great Depression. The Beaux Arts and the Damas clubs sponsored lots of dances, and so did the sororities and fraternities. In fact, by the late 1930s, there was an overabundance of social dances on campus.

Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Helen Anderson Waring-Tovey from Summerville, S.C., who attended the university’s two-year School of Commerce from 1938 to 1940.

Helen Anderson Waring-Tovey: “I met people and got into ‘Damas,’ the girls’ dance club. They had junior and senior Damas. The boys’ dance club was the ‘German.’ Each club had two formals a year. There were maybe 15 informal dances a year. And the fraternities and sororities had their formals each year. There were so many, they had to get it down to where the fraternities and sororities could give their formals every other year.

The most important thing in a girl’s life was the number of breaks you’d get at a dance, especially at a formal dance. They’d have stag lines lining up. You’d take one little step and then a person would tap the boy dancing with you on the shoulder and step in — a cut in. Maybe they’d have four ‘no-break’ dances during a ball where nobody could cut in.”

Sounds like Helen was quite the dancing queen back then. Another alumnus from that era was James Fant of Lockhart, S.C. He remembered pulling all-nighters in June — not studying for final exams but dancing.

James Fant: “When you came to Carolina, you had to have a tuxedo for the formal dances, even during the Depression. There were a lot of dances, most of them held at the gym, now Longstreet Theater. The big annual event was the June Ball. It started late and went all night — until about 6 o’clock in the morning. There was a place on Gervais, the Toddle House, where you could go late and have a piece of pie and cup of coffee. And there was the Metropolitan Café — the Metro — where everybody went after a dance.”

By the way, both of those reminiscences come from a book entitled Carolina Voices, published by USC Press. If you’re looking for an entertaining read about the university’s past, I highly recommend it.

The Jitterbug dance craze began in the 1940s. You’ve probably seen examples of the jitterbug in movies set during World War II, and it was popular at Carolina. The USC campus during the early ‘40s was essentially a training base for naval officers.

The 1950s ushered in beach music, and you could say that beach or shag music has never really gone away in the decades since then, especially in South Carolina.

Rock and roll arrived that same decade and took hold in the 1960s, and disco dancing was all the rage in the 1970s. I’m not really sure what students were dancing to in the 1980s — punk rock or new wave, maybe? I was too busy changing my kids’ diapers and paying a mortgage back then.

Music is always part of the college social scene, but somewhere along the way, dancing itself began to lose its place in the hierarchy of social entertainment on campus. USC still has dance clubs today, but they’re really more of a niche kind of thing. Students have told me that highly choreographed Tik Tok dances — which are usually performed and recorded solo in front of a cellphone camera — have largely taken the place of live group dancing.

But there is one form of dance that remains very big at USC. It’s called Dance Marathon, the largest student-run philanthropic organization on campus. This is Dance Marathon’s 25th anniversary at USC, and in that time, Carolina students have raised more than $8 million for Prisma Health Children’s Hospital in Columbia.

I talked to Katie Torbert, the student president of Dance Marathon who is majoring in public health. She was wearing a T-shirt that day that read “Bad dancing saves lives.”

Katie Torbert: “So when we're at org fairs out on Green Street, people come up to us and they're like, ‘So do you have to be experienced? Like, I danced throughout high school, I think I'd be a perfect fit.’ And we're like, ‘It's so funny you say that because most of the people in our organization have never danced a day in their life.’ ”

It’s true, no experience is necessary if you show up for a Dance Marathon event. You’re going to dance, but no one will be judging how good you are at it. It’s really more about having fun and raising money for a good cause at the same time.

During the main 14-hour Dance Marathon fundraiser, student participants learn how to do a line dance and they also do something called Silent Disco.

Katie Torbert: “And it's so funny because the room is completely silent and these people have headphones on and they're just dancing — like everyone's listening to different music and it's just so quiet and everyone's just going so crazy dancing. It's so funny.”

I can picture the Silent Disco scene in my mind, and as humorous as it might be, it’s pretty cool that students — just by dancing for hours on end — are raising a lot of money for a noble cause. 

That’s all for this episode and that’s all for the fall 2022 season of Remembering the Days. After nearly 35 years of working at the university, I am retiring at the end of the year. I’m happy to say that I’ll be coming back in a very part-time capacity early in 2023, and I have a slate of stories lined up for the spring season.

We’re going to look at the origin of USC’s alma mater, peek into a couple of time capsules that were buried on campus, play a game of university trivia and a whole lot more — that’s all in the spring season starting in February. Until then, I’m Chris Horn, wishing you joy and peace during the holidays and looking forward to joining you again in the new year. Forever to thee.