Interview: Shir Madness – Burlesque Performer and Producer
Featured image by Rick Taylor
Multiple award winning international burlesque sensation Shir Madness is a hoop dancer, costumier, model, and performer coming to you from exotic distant lands. Co-producer of the Galway Burlesque Festival, Miss Burlesque Dublin 2015, Best Overall winner at the Dublin Burlesque Festival 2016, Shir’s special brand of hoop magic and fierce body positivity has wowed crowds all across the UK and Ireland. She has been called a pioneer of wild underwear in Irish burlesque, and some believe that she lives in a nest made of glitter and rhinestones.But really she’s just a curvy, fiery circus freak who likes to tease…
Just to start off Shir, as it might not be something people have encountered before, how would you define burlesque?
Wow that’s a really difficult question to start off with!
So, burlesque started in the 1700s when people were mocking opera and ballet. Lower class people couldn’t go to see those shows so they were making cheap copies of them – they were kind of making fun of it. In European burlesque we’re still really connected to that. But then there’s American burlesque which started in the late 1800s and were basically very sexy shows and the start of exotic dancing. So, there’s those two roots of burlesque. And the burlesque we have now has its revival in the late 80s / early 90s. So for me burlesque is a mixture of both those things. It’s about telling a story in a very short, smaller format than you would with a play or an opera. And also, it’s about being sexy and a little bit funny.
So what we would know as burlesque now is fairly recent then if its only since the 80s or 90s?
There’s two big styles of burlesque . There’s what we call classic burlesque, which is the American revival from the 50s. So it’s the thing that people usually know as burlesque. Bettie Paige, Dita Von Teese, which is all the kind of pin-up style of vintage strip tease. And then there’s what we call neo-burlesque, which can be anything. It can include drag, or a mix of circus and comedy, it can be a mime act. It can be really close to performance art. So, it’s really diverse and that’s what I like about it. You can do pretty much anything.
It seems like Burlesque is an umbrella term for a lot of different art forms and performance styles?
It is, and that’s because of the burlesque revival in the 80s/90s started in gay clubs with drag. It was a mixture of those kind of queer cabarets that were happening all over.
How did you come to find your way into Burlesque then?
I had heard of burlesque when Dita von Teese became famous in the early 2000s when she married Marilyn Manson. So I knew of burlesque but I had never actually seen it live until I saw a show in Galway. It was for the Galway Fringe in 2012 and it was a troupe called Les Hot Culottes. They were doing this free show in the afternoon in Kelly’s Upstairs. There was 4 or 5 of them, all different body types and their show was all about being fun and funny, really body positive. It was the first time I had seen women just being free to enjoy and show their bodies, and in a very simple way challenging this idea that we need to be ashamed of our bodies or that they need to look a certain way. That was what really attracted me to burlesque. I had just started hula-hooping at the time, so I came up with this funny act where I would take my clothes of while hula-hooping, but not really thinking very far beyond that because I didn’t know anything really about burlesque. Tommy Walsh, who runs The Dirty Circus, gave me a performance slot at his next show, and that was my debut, and I loved it! And I have done many, many shows since and it’s now my full time job 5 years later!
From what I have seen of your own performances, your work is very diverse. In Girls, The White Queen and the fan dance, there’s such different emotional ranges and performances styles. “Girls” especially is very political and seems to stem from what you’re saying about body positivity.
Yeah, that’s a really interesting act I’ve performed live only twice because I think it’s just a little bit too strange for most shows. It came up as it’s something I feel strongly about, and I wanted to create an act that provoked strong emotions in people, that’s what I’m into now in the last year or so. And that act really came together when I did a three-day intensive performance workshop with a performer called Armitage Shanks in Dublin. I came to the workshop with the track edited and a vague idea of what I wanted to do and it really came together within that time, and every time I perform it people cry and it’s great!
It’s always a good marker when people cry!
Yeah! But when I started burlesque I only wanted to do hula-hoop routines. I thought that was going to be my thing, and it was always going to be stripping while hula-hooping and isn’t it a little bit funny. But when we do comedy, we can hide behind the funny element, the cuteness. I think it was a way to not fully jump into being okay with being sexy and the sexualisation of the body in burlesque, which happens, and we try to celebrate. But it’s hard to jump straight away into it. But then I did Miss Burlesque Ireland in 2015 where the rules of the competition are you must have a classic routine, a neo routine and a unique routine. My unique was going to be my hula hoop, but the classic has to be a revival of the 1950s golden age of American burlesque. And that was really scary for me because you just have to be on stage and dance and be sexy and do a striptease and you can’t hide behind the story or a gimmick.
So it’s more you performing rather than a character for those ones?
Yes, exactly. So that’s where the fan dance came from and I thought that was going to be the hardest to do. But it’s actually one of my favourites now! Doing the competition really pushed me out of the comfort zone of hula-hooping. I had to my classic act and then came up with my neo-act, which is my mermaid routine. The rules of the neo round are it has to have a storyline and be a parody. That’s very much the other origin of burlesque, the European origin. After the competition it was really freeing because I had all these ideas that beforehand I wouldn’t have thought of doing because they weren’t hula-hooping acts. But now I have 4 fan dances and 3 neo acts that have nothing to do with hula-hooping!
It’s so interesting that in modern competitions they stay connected to the roots of burlesque with the European and American origins, and then incorporate what unique element each performer can bring to it.
Yeah I think that’s the point, because it’s very hard to judge burlesque in competitions. It’s hard because a classic act and a comedy routine would be so different. Like you said there’s so much diversity. So I think that’s a way for the competition to even out the playing field, where everyone has to do one of each.
Between you starting burlesque in Galway and performing all over Ireland and the UK, there must obviously quite a strong community for burlesque in Ireland then?
There’s a great community and it’s lovely that everyone is really supportive of each other. And I think that’s one of the things that really attracts people to burlesque, the sense of family and community that we have. There’s also a scene in Belfast. There’s a burlesque festival there and regular shows that are produced by Soup Du Jour. And then there’s a show in Cork called The Peacock Parlour that’s run by Foxy P. Cox.
I love all of these names, they’re wonderful! Is there any correlation between the names and the performer’s own style/personality?
Soup du Jour is a comedy performer, she does a lot of neo and funny things. That’s why her name is..what it is! A lot of performers who start doing a lot of classic will go for names with “Von” or “Van” in it. Like Dita Von Teese, or Scarlet Van Tassel, Vixyn Von Trix. When people choose names they just try to think of something that will sound good when they’re being introduced. Something that’s easy to shout! A name that says something about your burlesque character. Now, I didn’t think this through at all – Shir is my real first name! It means “song” in Hebrew, because I was born in Israel. My mother thought she was giving me a very ordinary name that would blend in seamlessly! So the idea of me calling myself Shir Madness started with my housemates when we were just trying to find a name. I mean, there’s so many puns you could do with Shir, but that one kind of stuck.
You’ve kind of spoken about this before with your show GIRLs, but you talk on how your burlesque comes from your connection to feminism, so I just wanted to ask about the intersection between burlesque and feminism for you.
I see burlesque as being a feminist art form. First of all, it’s a lot of women performing. There are also male performers and non-binary people, but it’s mostly women performing. And it’s a mostly female audience. As a performer it’s a very powerful thing to be able to go on stage and reclaim the body and have a voice. Also as a female audience member, it’s also a very powerful thing to be in a room and see other women be celebrated. It happens at a lot of shows that women who come to a show for the first time are very moved to being seeing bodies that go against everything society had told them their whole life about standards of beauty and femininity. And they cry. At the Galway Burlesque Festival in 2015, I met this woman in her 60s who had never seen a burlesque show before and we so moved she was sobbing in the bathroom. She was thanking me and the other performers because she was just so moved to have never realised that she was beautiful, even though she wasn’t thin. And that is basically why I do burlesque.
I talk a lot about body positivity because it’s something I care about, but it’s also about challenging expectations of femininity. There are performers who identiy as female and do drag as a mockery of the expectations we put on women, and of gender in general. It’s not just about thin people and big people, it’s also about a lot of other things!
But it’s also the kind of stuff, that regardless of someone’s background, it will shock them out of what they know. Burlesque seems confrontational, but in a tender way. “You’re going to see something new, bare with me here!”
Yeah, that’s a very good definition of burlesque! But just to say for the record, I really like classic burlesque, really polished dance acts that are just about striptease. I think there’s a very strong but gentle political message in just celebrating women being sexy, without adding stories or gimmicks.
I might just ask you a few questions about being a producer of burlesque. You were a co-producer of Galway Burlesque Festival that was on a few weeks ago; when you’re programming a festival like that, what are you looking to bring to the west of Ireland, and Ireland in general?
I have a list of things I want; something beautiful, something funny and something weird. That’s my checklist! All the acts I book have to fall into those categories. When I have a few of each, I can then go wild and take chances on acts that are maybe a little bit different. I’m always looking for things that people haven’t seen before. I like to be able to show artists that may never get a chance to come back to Ireland. This year we had a lot of people from Australia who were on their European tour. It just happened that our festival happened at the end of the London Burlesque festival, so it was just the right timing for them to come to Ireland. It was just luck that they were here at the right time. I like to bring people from far away, I like to bring acts that are really unique. I like diversity in general. When I do the running order, I like to open with something classic and then take people on a bit of a rollercoaster. One of my favourite acts was an Australian woman, Jessica McKerlie. She did a lipsync with a puppet of a uterus and ovaries that she soaked in fake blood, and you can guess where the act was going. It wasn’t exactly burlesque, more like performance art.
I saw there was a Rising Star of the West award for the festival too?
The Rising Star of the West is the newcomer competition. We didn’t set a time limit on how long people had to be performing. We just asked them, “do you consider yourself a newcomer to the burlesque scene?”. The performer who won is called Uma Shadow, and he is from Japan. He’s also one of those acts that I’m so happy to be able to show. He’s just an incredible performer. He’s a professional contemporary dancer who works in Vegas, is from Japan and just happened to be touring Europe. His whole act was done in a traditional Japanese geisha costume, a traditional Japanese wedding dress. It was a drag act where halfway through he takes of the wig and takes of the wedding dress, and goes from being a woman to being a man. But all that is told through the medium of contemporary dance. It’s very weird, but also very beautiful. He has a video on Youtube of a previous performance if you want to check it out. That’s the kind of thing I like to show as a producer. Very strange things!
Part of the Galway Burlesque Festival was also held in the Town Hall Theatre this year. With it being a more mainstream, bigger venue, does that affect the show you do and is there connotations with doing it in a bigger performance space rather than a club or a bar?
Yeah, the venue really effects what kind of show it’s going to be. There’s very few burlesque shows in Ireland that happen in popular theatre spaces. That’s something I wanted to bring. It’s fun to perform in a venue like the Róisín Dubh or Seven or a nightclub or pub, but it’s a different atmosphere. As a performer, it feels very different to be standing on a real stage with curtains and lighting. It’s a bit more magical. I think it gives the artform more legitimacy and that’s also something I want to bring to Ireland and beyond as a producer. Burlesque is a legitimate artform. It’s not just amateurs playing around in a pub. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but in a lot of peoples’ minds it’s an amateur art form and performance. A lot of performers might be professional dancers or come from a theatre background, they have qualifications in other things. But it’s kind of scene as a step down for professional dancers to do burlesque. It’s a stigma I’m trying to fix.
If people go to a theatre, its implicit, but they’re going to look at a show or a performer. But in a bar, people are there for fun, to have a drink, and also see a show, it’s a more focussed audience in “legitimate” spaces.
Yeah absolutely. When we did our gala show in the Town Hall we were actually really worried to how the audience would respond, because they can’t just stand up and go to the bar. We didn’t know how that would go down for an audience that has only ever seen burlesque in pubs and very informal settings. But people really loved it. People even asked that the show should be longer next year!
So, do you have any performances coming up that people can see anything you’ve been talking about?
I do! I am performing Tuesday 13th in Dublin in the Liquor Rooms at the charity fundraiser. It’s a fundraiser for the retirement fund of an American performer called Satan’s Angel. The burlesque community, and especially the American burlesque community, really have a strong focus on celebrating the legends of burlesque – the performers that pioneered burlesque in the 50 and 60s and made it the artform that we use now. Some of them are still alive and still perform into their 70s and 80s. There’s such a thing as the Legends Showcase at the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. One of those legends is Satan’s Angel and she was the very first to use fire nipple tassles!
She’s retiring this year and she’s going to be in Leeds this September for a big farewell show. There’s also a movie coming out about her life. There’s tribute shows happening all over the world for this performer and Fifi La Roux decided to organise one for Ireland, and she invited the Irish legends to perform. The Irish scene is very young, less than 15 years, so just the performers who have helped the scene grow. And she’s included me! So that’s the next show I’m doing. I’ll then be performing on 23rd June in the Bonbon Room, a queer cabaret space. I’ll be trying out a new version of an old act! Then in July I’ll be in Waterford at The Bazooka Club on the 22nd, as well as London and Manchester. In August I’ll be at Edinburgh Fringe Festival for 2 weeks and will have shows in Tullamore and Belfast also. And then Dublin Fringe Festival in September!
For further information on Shir, you can follow her facebook page here and Galway Burlesque Festival here