Raleigh, N.C. — Raleigh’s closest beach is a good two-and-a-half hour drive… unless it’s a warm spring or summer Thursday night. Although the sound of ocean waves might be more than a little faint, that’s when the happy sounds of Midtown Beach Music take over the North Hills commons area and shagging takes center stage.
Since I’m not from around these parts I’ll have to trust Wikipedia when it says that the “Carolina Shag often bears only the faintest resemblance to other dances that share the ‘shag’ designation.” Couples dance a six-count, eight-step pattern in a slot, and it’s almost as much fun to watch as it is to dance.
If you’re into learning something new, Loafers Beach Club often offers shagging lessons during intermission and drawings for a month of free lessons at the club as well. Loafers’ owner, Gary Gibson, has emceed Beach Music since the very beginning. A Shag Preservation Club, Loafers is the longest running beach club in North Carolina, at 28 years and counting.
It’s definitely enjoyable just to kick back and listen, too. The idea for Beach Music — a free concert series featuring Motown covers and other feel-good ’60s and ’70s bands — popped up in a 2006 brainstorming session about creating memorable traditions after both an emerging artist and a jazz series had fizzled.
“People like music that they know. With its place in Carolina history it seemed to be the obvious choice for North Hills,” said Patrice Bethea, North Hills’ marketing manager. “We started with Thursdays because booking acts on a Friday and Saturday was so expensive, and now it’s perfect since it helps people start their weekends early.”
John Kane, CEO of Kane Realty Corporation, concurs. Developer and owner of North Hills as well as a resident himself, Kane described Beach Music as “continuing a Carolina tradition that energizes the community and transcends all generations.”
All generations indeed: more than 125,000 people attend each season.
A progression throughout the evening on the North Hills commons starts with the older generation marking their space with chairs before the 6 p.m. start, with families joining in shortly after. After intermission many of the families have gone home to bath time and bedtime and the crowd shifts to a younger group. After 9 p.m., several nearby bars and restaurants host after-parties, sweeping aside dining tables and hiring DJs to continue the fun.
Midtown’s success over time has been gradual as North Hills has matured along with the rest of Raleigh. Kane bought the first parts of North Hills in 2000, and REI and Target opened in 2002.
“The first big event North Hills event was Christmas 2004, and pictures of a small crowd show the boarded-up shops in the background,” Bethea said. “Downtown then wasn’t what it is now, either. Now all of Raleigh is winning, and we’re still all in this together. It’s just a lot more fun for everyone now.”
Now in its 9th year, Beach Music is just one way North Hills celebrates live music. “Activating space is important to us, and music is woven into nearly everything we do,” Bethea explained. Sponsors make all the North Hills-organized events happen, more than 300 each year.
It’s not all sponsored events. “We encourage tenants to be outside their spaces since it makes the community more vibrant,” she said, and that welcome extends to the broader community. The North Hills self-described “city within a city” often hosts buskers, kids practicing the violin, or a chorus from a local school. Individual businesses also promote live performances, with the Renaissance Hotel hosting acts on Tuesdays and World of Beer on Fridays.
Other free Midtown public series include fall’s Friday Night Tributes,with more than 40,000 season attendees enjoying cover bands in the Midtown Park from 7-9 p.m. each week between August 14 and October 16, and September’s Midtown Bluegrass Series, honoring IBMA’s Wide Open Bluegrass in Raleigh just a few days later. Late spring Sunday FUNday picnics on the park lawn between 3 and 5 p.m. might be the most relaxing of them all, with blankets and coolers encouraged.
Honestly, trying to choose what concerts to see in Raleigh, outdoor or not, makes learning to shag look easy.
This article originally appeared on Raleigh & Co. Jen Baker is a Sustainability Analyst for the City of Raleigh by day, but writes about Raleigh life by night.