You’ll have to forgive Shari Fields if she sounds a bit jaded. But after three years of working as a professional belly dancer, she’s just being practical. “A belly dancer’s career is very limited,” says Fields, who’s 32. “Once you start to age, there’s always younger belly dancers that’ll dance for less–that’ll undercut your prices. It’s just a fact.”

Raised in northeast Iowa–where her father was a civil engineer, then a minister (“I didn’t grow up as a minister’s daughter, but I graduated from high school as one”)–she first saw a belly dancer at a U2 concert in 1992. Three years later she was driving from Chicago to Des Plaines for instruction. She started with just one class a week, but quickly signed up for two more. In 1996 she traveled to Turkey, where she saw other dancers and bought elaborate costumes. When she returned, she practiced with a band at the Alkhayam on Foster. Finally, she dropped off her business cards at several Arabic nightclubs. “The next week,” she says, “I had calls from two.”

By then she’d created an alternate identity–Zaxara, a name she thought sounded vaguely Middle Eastern, at least more so than Shari. But once she tried it in the clubs, it brought streams of “No-no-no-no-no, that’s not an Arabic name–you need a real Arabic name.” That led her to “Jamila Sharif.” She tends to talk about Jamila as if she’s another person altogether.

“It’s taken me a long time to get used to the idea of being two people,” Fields says. “There are certain expectations of Jamila. Jamila has to have on her makeup. She has to have in her contacts. When I’m going out to the store and I’m without my makeup, I don’t think of myself as Jamila. If Jamila goes to a nightclub, even if she’s not dancing, she is still working to promote herself as a belly dancer.”

Jamila has to put up with a lot. She’s been asked to stay the entire evening when she was only scheduled to dance a 15-minute set. She’s also been stiffed when not enough people showed up. “One nightclub owner didn’t want me to leave until ten minutes before closing time because he was afraid that I might go somewhere else,” she recalls. “They were half an hour from everywhere else. I had to say, ‘Well, what do I look like sitting by myself at a table? What does it look like I’m waiting for?’ You have to stand your ground.”

And then there are the invitations for coffee. “When somebody says ‘Oh, let’s go out for coffee’ in the business world, it’s not a pickup line. In an Arabic nightclub, if anybody says ‘Let’s go for coffee,’ chances are they’re trying to pick you up.”

She says belly dancing has unjustly gotten a bad rap, not only here but in its countries of origin, like Egypt and Turkey, which have strong Islamic fundamentalist movements. “Most of the belly dancers I know have college degrees, and some even have master’s degrees,” says Fields, who has a master’s in communications herself and is a salesperson for a video distributor. “I mean, it’s definitely been an educational process.”

Now she follows a few rules: coming and leaving with friends, giving faraway gigs to other dancers, and making sure that any club she dances in is some place she’d want her friends to see her–meaning the place has to be clean, and the food good.

The nightclub work has brought better gigs, including a regular stream of nice parties and weddings. And contrary to Fields’s feelings about getting old, the work shows few signs of slowing down. There are, after all, plenty of dancers who’ve continued performing into their 70s, though not necessarily in nightclubs.

“Right now, I’m fading out of the nightclub scene,” Fields says. Her most regular gig is at A la Turka, 3134 N. Lincoln, where she dances on Saturday nights between 9 and 10 PM. “It’s a restaurant. I still like the dancing, but I just don’t know whether or not I’ll try and get back into the nightclubs.”

This Saturday she’ll be performing “Turkish folk-style dance” as part of the lineup at the Turkish Earthquake Benefit Concert at Northwestern University. There will be Turkish, Greek, and Jewish music by Jutta & the Hi-Dukes, Jim Stoynoff, Jim Lemonides, and Aaron Cohen, as well as performances by other dancers. It’s at 2 PM at Lutkin Hall, 700 University Place in Evanston. Admission is $10; call 847-491-5441 for reservations.

–Sridhar Pappu

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.