The North Myrtle Beach shagging community lost a founding father of the South Carolina state dance with the passing of Harold Bessent in May 2015, but the 1950s beach dance is still alive and kicking thanks to his life's work.
The co-owner and namesake for legendary shag bar Fat Harold's Beach Club, Bessent was 82 when he died after a prolonged illness.
But the vast majority of those 82 years were spent scooting his heels and swinging his dance partner around the sawdust-covered dance floor at the historic club on Ocean Drive and Main Street, earning him the title "King of the Shag."
Inside Fat Harold's Beach Club — Photo courtesy of Fat Harold's Beach Club
Bessent grew up in nearby Little River, a small fishing village just across Cherry Grove Inlet from North Myrtle Beach, which was ground zero for the birth of the Carolina shag in the post-World War II era.
Teenagers hitchhiked and drove their hot rods to the Carolina coast, then spent their days playing on the beach and their nights on the dance floors of the oceanfront clubs and pavilions. To the sounds of crashing waves and vintage jukeboxes, they twisted and swayed to beach music that was often forbidden back in their small Southern small hometowns.
Bessent was around for the dance's heyday in the 1950s and '60s, and he continued to love it and live it when the crowds turned to disco, country and western and rock 'n' roll.
Not only did he stay true to his sandy roots, but Bessent also embarked on a lifetime of preserving the shag for future generations. He bought one of the popular dance clubs and made it shag only, introducing new visitors to the dance with free shag lessons and also serving as the unofficial headquarters.
"King of the Shag" Harold Bessent — Photo courtesy of Fat Harold's Beach Club
Fat Harold's made it official when Bessent started the Society of Stranders, a national shag club that holds gatherings throughout the year. The Society of Stranders' Spring, Fall and Winter Safaris are attended by thousands of folks who come to take a rhythmic stroll down memory lane, even if they don't have the same moves as they used to.
The work of Bessent and his club has also given life to a new generation of shaggers, who compete in the National Shag Dance Championships in North Myrtle Beach each fall.
In his later years, when he could no longer burn up the dance floor like when he was in his prime, Bessent put a chair on the edge of the dance floor so he could still be in the middle of the action. No one else was allowed to sit there.
His chair will remain empty when Fat Harold's hosts a celebration of his life on Saturday, June 13. Future tributes are in the works for the next Society of Stranders function.