Crediting Paul Monty’s Vision
The Birth of the Mideastern Dance Seminar
The average skill level and seriousness of non-“native” dancers, teachers and students in the field of Oriental and Mideastern/North African folk dance seminars and performances is far greater than when I started teaching seminars in 1974, and the level of proficiency expected for “entry level” gigs today is much higher than when I started performing in 1960. Although there are still “pockets of voluntary ignorance” today, Oriental dance is now accepted and appreciated by a far wider audience than 35 years ago, and it is growing even as I write. I believe, with all my heart, that all of this progress in our field would not have been attained, nor would any of the “old guard master teachers” be who we’ve become, were it not for a wonderful, loving, nurturing visionary: Dr. Paul Monty.
Nowadays, 95% of my work is in venues that would not have let an Oriental dancer in the door 35 years ago, when I started in this field. Then, there were only two avenues for Oriental dance. The choice was either “ethnic” — small “mom and pop” restaurants, clubs and family or group celebrations — or (unbeknownst to me at the time) “girlie-girlie” — burlesque and other fantasy places catering to the lowest common denominator, such as convention parties and stag shows.
Surprised and saddened by the misconceptions and misinterpretation of our dance form, and, by extension, of me and my moral character, by the non-informed American public, including friends in other dance forms, I sought other, wider venues to show the public the results of my research into the origins and history of Oriental dance and its artistic validity and beauty. I never saw so many closed attitudes in my life.
In the ’60’s, there were no publications in our field. It wasn’t even considered a field, just another bit of titillating “exotica.” When I wrote my first article in 1964, you could have papered my walls with the “thank you, very well-written, but subject inappropriate, send something else” letters. Sexology was the only magazine that would buy it; not too long thereafter, Medical Dimensions published a shorter version.
In 1964 and 1965, I was in a Broadway show in which I received great reviews and much press coverage. Due to the above, the Brooklyn Museum took a chance and became the first museum to present an Oriental dancer, giving me the opportunity to dance at their Grand Gala. In 1970, I was hired by the N.Y. City Department of Cultural Affairs on a regular and frequent basis to do daytime lecture/performance/mini-lessons all over the city. As a result of a show for them at Lincoln Center, the Museum of Natural History gave me a chance to lecture and perform on a regular basis.
In 1972, Majority Report, a feminist newspaper, and Mixed Pickles, a folk dance newsletter, both reprinted my 1964 article.
There were developments in other geographical areas as well. The East and West coasts, with a synchronicity of inspiration, were making independent, simultaneous efforts. The door was opening a crack, but outside of the aforementioned and the “ethnic” market, there were still miles to go.
While I was busy hacking a path through the jungle of cultural ignorance, a young Long Island teacher of art and children’s dance, Paul Monty, saw Mideastern dance for the first time in 1971. After hearing all the slurs and snobbish, snide misconceptions that the misnomer “belly” dance brought to the unenlightened mind, he was thoroughly, thrillingly surprised when he was dragged, unwilling, to a Christmas party in New York City which featured a Mideastern dancer. Realizing that this fabulous, complicated, classical ethnic dance form was being given very short shrift by the rest of the dance and art world, he determined to set the record straight.
As vice president of the main chapter of the National Association of Dance Affiliate Artists, and president of its four-day dance seminars for teachers, he hired a Mideastern dancer to teach one of the classes at their convention. The organization tried to have him fired as a result. How dare he hire a “belly” dancer to teach real dancers! But he fought the good fight and won. They came to scoff and went away praising. Over 100 teachers showed up, when the usual attendance had been twenty to thirty.
Seeing the amount of actual interest, while still getting serious opposition from within the organization, he decided to try his hand at producing large-scale Mideastern dance seminars himself. The first was in New York City. His prior experience and mailing list were from the tap/jazz/ballet/ballroom scene, and his Mideastern dance contacts at the time were minimal, so I heard about that seminar accidentally on the bus coming back from my bimonthly weekend gig at a Lebanese restaurant in Allentown, PA.
I was very interested, got his phone number from the young woman I’d overheard discussing the seminar, called, introduced myself, sent pictures and resume, and invited him to come the next month to watch me teach and perform in Connecticut for Esterina and Cheri Miller. He came. So did about 100 students, mostly beginners, and the mayor of Hartford (no kidding!). Paul brought Sergio, a young friend and fashion design major, who had never seen Mideastern dance before, to check out costumes so he could help design and make some to sell at future seminars.
Paul booked me on the spot to teach for him at Chicago’s very first Mideastern dance seminar. Sergio was fascinated and asked me if it were possible for a man to do this dance. He took his first lessons with me, debuted in the Chicago seminar show, and became the first lead male dancer of my troupe, Casbah.
Paul Monty made dance history, opened doors , and created the concept of master seminar teachers, inviting Serena, Ibrahim Farrah (Habibi Vol. 13, No. 2), Dahlena, Bert Balladine, Jamila Salimpour (Habibi Vol 13, No. 4), Sergio, Cheri Miller, Jemela Omar, Badawia and myself (Habibi Vol. 13, No. 3). Others liked the idea and set up their own seminars, hiring the “master teachers” graced and presented by Paul, and giving local talent the chance to emerge in the concert and hafla settings accompanying the seminars. For many, it was their first taste of the real art and technical skill involved in Raks Sharki and the rich variety of ethnic dances from the Near and Middle East and North Africa. Seminars helped to create a “sisterhood” to which male dancers were welcomed, and gave rise to a whole new genre of merchant. They helped to spread the word about newly emerging publications in our field: a wonderful way to share knowledge and opinions and promote local events and personalities. Read by “civilians,” as well as us, they helped spread understanding, increasing respect for the field.
Paul was a whiz at promotion: local TV news cameras appeared at almost every one of his seminars. It was unusual, a bit sensational at the time. The viewing public learned we were out there. For a while, “belly” dance was a real fad. Thousands of newcomers, hoping it was easy, took ten-week courses (often from teachers who were themselves “ten-week wonders”), then went on to a new fad. Serious students stuck with it, found good instructors, attended seminars and advanced their technique, becoming a discriminating, supportive audience as well as skilled performers and teachers. From an increasing supply of performers, with varying degrees of talent, taste and skill, the public started to sort class from crass and develop standards, as with any other art form.
It was at a Paul Monty seminar that I was asked to show “the real thing,” give a taste of my kind of in-person experience “over there,” what I’d been talking about and teaching. I decided to organize the first dancers’ tour to Morocco and the Marrakesh Folk Festival, so dancers and true “culture vultures” could see real tribal dance. Naturally, tours to Egypt for their version of Sharki and real Ghawazi came next. Mine were cultural immersions. A lot of fantasies about life and dance “over there” were blown out of the water, replaced by the much more interesting and many-faceted reality.
Of course, there were occasional flies in the ointment: some arranged seminars a couple of weeks before in the same city, or a parallel seminar nearby, knowing Paul’s schedule and itinerary well in advance, in an attempt at “power play.” Some teachers were “no shows” or sent a substitute at the last minute. Paul took it all in stride: his seminars went on as scheduled, were very well-attended, students had a great time. He did it for love.
Almost since the day we met, Paul was after me to put all my research and experiences into a book. I kept threatening to write my opus magnus, “How To Evade An Expectorating Camel.” He said I should go for a Ph.D. I told him Raks Sharki wasn’t an accepted topic. He said, “Okay, I’ll make it accepted,” never expecting the academic and bureaucratic opposition he was to encounter every step of the way. He went to court to get the topic accepted for his second M.A. and started to go for his Ph. D. It took Monty six years of course work at NYU’s School of Education, Health, Nursing and Arts Professions before he could begin his thesis. In July, 1985, he presented his proposal for his thesis and was rejected by a panel of professors saying they did not consider belly dancing to be its own creative art form. After much protest, the Dance department finally accepted Monty’s proposal.
In 1983, he came down with pneumocystis and was diagnosed with AIDS. After he came out of the hospital, he ran away to Florida, hiding from friends and himself. I tracked him down and said: “You made me a promise.” He said: “You’re right. I have a Ph.D. to finish and I’m not going anywhere until I do!” I was his official consultant for the thesis, as a leading “authority” in history, culture, etc. Dr. Patricia Rowe, then Chair of the Dance Department at N.Y.U., was head of the examining committee. Unbeknownst to each other, we both determined to keep him going as long as possible by arguing each point with him, suggesting tangents, books to read, additions. Sergio learned how to drive and bought a car, chauffeuring Paul to doctors and libraries, waiting patiently while Paul underwent experimental treatments or did his painstaking research in obscure newspaper archives. We succeeded for three years – much longer than the doctors who were treating him expected (before AZT, earlier diagnosis, support groups, GMHC, etc.).
When it was evident that we could stall no longer, Paul Monty defended his thesis on April 29, 1986, and emerged Dr. Paul Monty, having established the topic of Mideastern dance as worthy of recognition on the highest academic level. His dissertation was entitled “The Evolution of Belly Dance in America.” According to John Sirica (in Newsday, May 15, 1986),
What Monty contributed to world knowledge was a 379-page thesis detailing the history of belly dancing in America. A chronological and sometimes colorful account, the dissertation traces the evolution of belly dancing from the late 1800’s when Det. Antonio Vachris made his name by rounding up “coochee–coochee” dancers at Coney Island…to the 1970’s, when, Monty’s research found, belly dancing became more popular and respectable in the United States.
Since then, many have written term papers, and there are other Masters and a few Ph.D.’s in the field, but Dr. Monty was the groundbreaker.
During an interview with John Sirica, Dr. Monty was asked what his reactions and feelings were to his AIDS and imminent death. He replied that after the initial shock came “…the intense anger: ‘Why me? What have I done to deserve this?’ Then came the realization that I was given this as a way of understanding pain – my own and others. It showed me that I can finally accept love – the love of my friends and colleagues. That I am worthy of that love and that I can return it. It has, in the end, turned out to be an unexpected gift. It gave me the urgency to accomplish what I most wanted in my life.”
Since those early seminars developed by Paul in the ‘70s, national economic problems have taken a great toll on restaurant and nightclub venues, decimating the ethnic “Mom and Pop” places. “Fundamentalism” closed many more. What to do? Form groups, dance companies, put on haflas and concerts, create our own venues and new audiences. Many big-city libraries, schools, and museums now include some form of Mideastern dance in their cultural programs, widening our circles of understanding and respect. As I said earlier, 95% of my gigs are now in places that would not have let you or me in the door 35 years ago. I’m sure most of us would have been long out of this business if we depended only on restaurants and clubs for our outlet.
The number of dancers of far higher caliber has increased thanks to all the continued teaching, research, trips and seminars. Seminars have gotten both bigger and smaller; more specific and more complex; harder and simpler; longer and shorter. Students want the whole enchilada or “less is more;” routines or just technique; the “real thing” with background and history, or Hollywood, “tribal” or balletic fantasy; calm explanation or mystical ritual; “Egyptian” or “Turkish” or “Lebanese” or “American;” cane or sword or tray or candelabrum. Some want difficulty, others simplicity. There’s room for all of it. As the general levels of expectation and skill grow, teachers have to keep up and stay ahead.
Dr. Paul’s vision travels the world as American teachers travel to teach in Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland, England, Austria, Italy, Denmark and Australia. Our overseas sisters and brothers come here to show us the directions they’re taking with Dr. Paul’s “baby.” It’s even travelled “over there:” before my insistence on classes and seminars when we went to Egypt, there were no teachers of Oriental dance available to us there. (There are still no schools in Sharki for the general public.) The Spanish “Delilah,” who danced in the Middle East as a young woman and then married and came to the U.S., brought Mahmoud Reda for his first seminar tour here. He says this year is his last: I sincerely hope not. Now, mainly via the German dance scene, several Egyptian, male, ex-theater “folk” dancers of varying degrees of skill are teaching, gaining more acceptance and appreciation in the West than they would have received back home.
His body may have died at 46 on September 8, 1986 in New York, but his vision and legacy live on in every one of us. If there is a Heaven, I’m sure he’s there, smiling down with approval. Thank you, Dr. Paul, from all of us.
Morocco has performed and taught seminars in the United States, Canada, Europe, Morocco, Israel, and Egypt. Her company, the Casbah Dance Experience, was created in New York City to present Mideastern and North African dance in concert and school settings, and has been awarded numerous choreographic and cultural services grants. She has spent thirty-two years researching on-site the music, steps and styles of regional dances in the Middle East (see articles on dance of the Berber nations in Morocco in Habibi, Vol 12, Nos. 3 & 4, and Vol. 13, Nos. 1 & 2; also, cover story in Habibi, Vol. 13, No. 3). www.casbahdance.org