In the mid-1960s, the choices for a senior in high school in Burlington, North Carolina, were work at the local mill or try your hand at college. Jill Kinney decided to give higher education her best shot. Even though no one else in her hometown was heading to Campbell College, Kinney was optimistic about college life and making new friends.
After a summer of employment at a Girl Scout camp, Kinney was able to pay for her books and was soon packing to depart for Buies Creek. Her parents dropped her off on a Sunday morning—their only day off—after helping her find her room and make her bed. She was further from home than she had ever been and determined to befriend her new roommates. This turned out to be more of a challenge than she had anticipated.
“What do you say to two strangers that you’ve been assigned to live with for a year and didn’t know the first thing about?” she remembered. “I asked the only question I could think of — ‘do either of you shag dance?’ I was met with blank stares. I thought I was done for after that.”
Kinney retreated further and further into her shell as the first week of college progressed. She met classmates from schools in Fayetteville, Roxboro, and Clinton — no one from any of the schools that her Burlington high school had competed against in sports, and no one who shared her love of music or dancing. What could they possibly have in common?
That all changed when she overheard a group of girls planning an after-dinner trip to Williams Lake to hear Gene Barbour and the Cavaliers play. Kinney was overjoyed. She recognized those bands. There were shag dancers at Campbell after all.
Soon she and the girls were comparing dance shoes (Weejuns or Papagallos) and practicing their best moves to the radio. Typically, they’d practice holding onto a door knob as a substitute dance partner, but when the girls found out Kinney could dance the boy’s lead, she became a hero. Kinney never missed a concert in the auditorium or a dance gathering outside the science building— she had found her niche.
“All of my friends and I were right in the middle of it all, moving and swaying to the fabulous songs that we knew every step to,” she said.
There was one slight problem— Campbell College did not allow men and women to dance together on campus in the 1960s. But that never stopped Kinney or her cohort. They would encircle any couple that was brazen enough to try dancing and make sure the campus police were none the wiser. The surrounding crowd of single dancers would jump up and down, clapping in time with the music to conceal the lucky couple’s wrongdoing.
By the time she graduated in 1969, Kinney couldn’t count the friendships she had made at Campbell College. Many of her girlfriends lived in Eastern North Carolina, less than an hour from Myrtle Beach. She recalls spending weekends with her friend Betty’s family in Fair Bluff, speeding through supper, dressing up in their preppiest outfits and heading to the beach to hear the latest jukebox music.
Fifty years after her graduation, Kinney has kept in touch with many of those women, not only through Christmas and birthday cards, but through shag dance reunions. A North Myrtle Beach gathering draws crowds of dancers who worked as lifeguards or summer beach vendors in the 1950s and 1960s. Kinney began making the drive from Charlotte to Myrtle Beach each spring and fall to dance and reminisce, occasionally running into old friends from her Campbell days.
This past spring, Kinney and her friends made the Campbell reunion official. Her suitemate from 1966 invited friends from Powell dormitory to stay at her condo for the weekend’s “Society of Stranders” gathering.
“As each of us walked through the door, there was that instant connection, just as though we’d seen each other only days ago. We picked up where we left off as though it were still 1967. For many of us, it had been at least 30 years.”
The Campbell women cooked, danced and laughed together with old dance tunes playing from an iPad. They attended the Society of Stranders parade and showed off their moves on a wooden floor laid out on the beach, meeting more friends from Campbell as the weekend progressed.
“I know I’m not as smooth on the dance floor as I was 50 years ago, but in our minds at least, we looked great! I loved being together with my Campbell buddies and we’ll still try to meet where we can to listen to those tunes of the 1960s.”