'In burlesque we see a different idea of femininity and it is empowering'

Shir Madness - burlesque performer, co-producer Galway Burlesque Festival

Shir Madness. Photo:- Rick Taylor

Shir Madness. Photo:- Rick Taylor

It is a story countless Galwegians are familiar with. You meet a person from outside the county or outside Ireland, and they tell you how they came here on a holiday, to study, or perhaps were just passing through, never intending to stay more than a few months, 12 at the most. Years later, they are still here, and regard the city as their home as much as any born and bred Galwegian.

Burlesque performer Shir Madness is one of the many creative people in the city who call tell this story. The fact she is living in Galway for almost a decade is a remarkable testament to its hold on her, given that she has enjoyed a nomadic existence, whose starting point was the Middle East.

"I was born in Israel in Be'er Sheva, in the middle of the desert," Shir tells me during our Wednesday afternoon interview. "We moved to France when I was three. We moved around a lot when I was a child. I lived near Paris for six years, then Orléans, and then Marseille, where I started secondary school. I went to college in Aix-en-Provence and moved to Galway to do my second year, studying English as an Erasmus student. I was only meant to stay a year, but I just loved the life here. It's so easy and there is so much creativity everywhere that I decided to stay. I interrupted my studies, got a job, and have been here eight years now."

Given her life has crossed continents, borders, and seas, how has this moulded her sense of identity? "I'm not from Israel. I always say I'm from France," she replies. "I think the main thing I got from Marseille, and France, was the culture of theatre classes, the stage, and performance growing up there, but my mother is from Argentina and always spoke to me in Spanish, so overall my sense of identity is flexible."

In recent years Shir - "It means song in Hebrew," she explains, before adding with a laugh, "My parents thought they were going to give me a normal, inconspicuous, name," - has become one of the rising stars of the Irish burlesque scene for her dramatic Hula-Hooping displays, elegant fan dances, mermaid act, and the ability to keep things on the right side of 'naughty but nice' with a smile as dazzling as it is devilish.

Last month saw her come second in Miss Burlesque Ireland, granting her the title of Miss Burlesque Dublin - "I'm very proud because Miss Burlesque Ireland really does feature the best performers in the country," she says. "Everybody puts in so much work, it must be so hard to judge," - while in September, she and The Dirty Circus's Tommy Walsh will present the first Galway Burlesque Festival, from Friday 18 to Sunday 20. "It's about expanding the burlesque scene in Ireland," says Shir. "It will feature performances, workshops, and competitions. Competitions are a big part of burlesque as they attract international performers and it's always good for them to have that on their CV."

Creating the 'Wow factor'

Shir's Hula-Hoops, with installed LED lights, are a major part of her performances. When the stage lights go out, all that is visible is a kaleidoscopic twirl and swirl of multicoloured lights, creatings a dramatic visual effect. The route to this act lay in the discovery of some children's Hula-Hoops at a friend's barbecue. "I was trying to spin them and was completely useless at it, but I enjoyed it," she says. "I looked up tutorials on YouTube and found these amazing videos and decided 'That's what I want to do.' So I learned, practiced a lot, and a year later started doing gigs."

It was around this time her act also began to move in the direction of burlesque, and she also got in touch with Tommy Walsh, who had begun running The Dirty Circus burlesque and cabaret nights, which have since grown in popularity, and in which Shir often performs.

"I saw Les Hot Culottes and it was really inspiring to see that confidence, and the empowerment of burlesque," she said, "so I had the idea for a funny act. I thought it would be fun to Hula-Hoop and try to take my clothes off at the same time. Now the first time it went horribly wrong! The song didn't work properly, there was a minute missing at the start. The stage was smaller than the area I was used to practicing in. Clothes didn't come off when they were supposed to and things that weren't meant to come off did!"

It may have been an inauspicious start, but the audience still gave Shir "a positive response and they enjoyed the LED light Hula Hoops", which encouraged her to keep going, eventually leading to her taking part in competitions in Ireland and Britain. These too were steep, but ultimately essential, learning curves.

"I was taking part in a competition in the UK," she recalls, "and afterwards went to the judges to get feedback and advice. One was Kitten de Ville, one of the major names in burlesque. She said my act was great but my costume, which was an Ann Summers bra and panties with sequins, wasn't up to the standard. That's when I realised the importance of costumes and that you had to create a 'Wow factor' with them. You don't want the audience to say 'Oh but I have that in red in my wardrobe at home'."

Shir Madness.

These days there is no fear of anyone having costumes like Shir's, given that she designs and hand-makes her own lingerie. "It is an extremely long process and extremely expensive," she admits. "I am lucky as I know how to saw and did a fashion design course at the GTI, Fr Griffin Road, so I have skills to put to use. I glue rhinestones on one by one. To cover a corset that is several thousand, placed with tweezers, but it's worth it! Costumes are part of the appeal of burlesque. You have so little time onstage you need a costume that makes an impact and that can tell a story."

Now established as a name in Irish burlesque, Shir's act continues to expand and diversify, and Hula-Hooping remains an essential element. "What I like about Hula-Hooping is that its actually a very meditative thing, it's very relaxing," she says. "It may sound strange but without my Hula-Hoops I actually feel naked on stage!"

A different idea of femininity

The origins of burlesque are complex, but in the theatrical form, it was a 19th century development arising from the variety and cabaret shows in Paris, London, Berlin, and the United States, which mixed comedy, music, farce, entertainment, and strip tease, or risqué dances or acts, and lasted up to the 1940s or 1950s in some cases. A revival in the style began in the US in the 1990s, with Neo-Burlesque. Here the focus is less on the objectification of women by a predominantly male audience, rather a celebration of the female form by women themselves, and a challenge to narrow, restricted, social constructs of how women are expected to look. This is underlined by the fact that the majority of the audience at any Dirty Circus are women.

"One of the things I hear most as a performer, and it's mostly from women, is, 'You're great, you're so brave, looking the way you look, you make me feel better about myself!'" she says. "It's a slightly backhanded compliment but I know they mean. They like to see different body types celebrated and see a different idea of femininity and beauty, and it is empowering to step away from tanned, thin, size eight model ideal that women are expected to conform to. And I get that as that's what I thought when I saw Les Hot Culottes, there were so many body types and different forms of beauty, so different to what we are told we should aspire to look like, so I do find it empowering."

Burlesque still involves stripping, so how does Shir feel about the term stripper? "I'm OK with the word," she says. "I think it's wrong to try to disassociate stripping from burlesque. They are different but I don't think one is better or higher than another. The burlesque we have now comes from the strip-tease acts of the 1930s and 1940s. After that they separated out into two different forms, so it's hypocritical not to acknowledge that both styles have the same origins. The main difference is that stripping is about sexual gratification, whereas burlesque, although that is part of it too, involves an awful lot more and appeals to a different, wider, audience."

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