From Grading Tests To Mixing Beats

December 9, 2014

Monica Shah opens her classroom door as first period social studies class is about to start. She’s barely taller than the middle school students who shuffle down the hallway. “What up, DJ Shah?” a student calls out as he passes.

The call-out catches on. There is clapping and a few more “DJ Shahs!” before teachers hush the students and shoo them into class.

So it’s not a secret, really, that this unassuming and soft-spoken 26-year-old teacher is also a DJ.

“I had always secretly wanted to be a DJ,” says Shah, who teaches at Brightwood Education Campus, a preK-8 school in Washington, D.C.

When she was in college in Illinois, she started to make collections of songs – she’d blast her playlists while she studied for finals. Her junior year, she studied abroad in Spain and fell in love with the dance and music scene. When she returned to the U.S., she joked with friends that she wanted to DJ, but it just didn’t seem like a something that could actually happen.

“I didn’t know any DJ’s and I didn’t really know how to get started, so it was always just a silly dream,” she says.

Several years passed, Shah moved to D.C. for graduate school in international education and focused her attention on teaching. But the drive to be a DJ didn’t go away.

“I promised myself that once I graduated and got a job, I would sign up for classes,” Shah says.

She kept that promise: Two weeks after she started teaching at Brightwood, she enrolled in a five-month course to get her mixing certificate.

Her first gig was a house party – but she’s since DJ’d events, holiday parties and weddings. Last year she did weddings in Cancun and the Isle of Wright and performed at a club in Geneva. And of course, she’s there at all the school dances.

“I like having something on the side that’s totally different,” she says.

At her school she has created a program within the social studies department to teach “peace education” — which focuses on things like conflict resolution and civil rights.

Shah says having a double life isn’t always easy.

Her parents are both from India and her siblings are doctors. So, she says, just telling her her family — was nerve-wracking.

“I’ve always been the black sheep of my family,” she says. “They wanted me to consider other fields. So it took me a while to even bring up the DJ-ing.”

She says eventually her family came around. “It took my mom a while,” she says, “but after about a year, she told me she was happy to know that I’m able to do what I’m passionate about.”

Because of the demands of teaching, she’s cut back on her nightlife. These days, most of her gigs are sporadic: a night club here, a wedding there.

But every Monday you can find her at 305 Fitness, a studio in the city that offers exercise workouts taught with a live DJ.

On the night I visit, Shah has just come from the after-school Model UN club at Brightwood.

Her outfit is a perfect reflection of her double life: The bottom half, black tights, a pencil skirt and flats reflects her day job, and the top half, a loose neon tank top with peace signs and dangling peace sign earrings, sums up her secret life.

The workout room is dark, with a few brightly colored spotlights. The class gets started: 30 adults dancing, lunging and jumping to the set list DJ Shah has prepared. The room echoes with the sounds of “Scream & Shout” by featuring Britney Spears, “Let’s Get Loud” by Jennifer Lopez and Duke Dumont’s “The Giver.”

Shah’s in the back, headphones around her neck, foot tapping. She’s following the ebbs and flows of the rhythm.

“I’m proud of myself,” she says. “The things I’ve worked really hard for: DJ-ing and teaching, have all come together.”

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