The first thing she teaches you is how to walk properly in heels, says O’Keeffe.
Byrne, who worked in London as a dancer and had a solo slot at the well-known West End nightclub Café de Paris, returned to Dublin to work on the Tassel Club, a burlesque show based in the Sugar Club. In 2010, she opened her own place, the Irish Burlesque School.
This Friday, as part of Culture Night, Byrne is offering a sample class for free. It’ll cater to beginners, Byrne says, with simple techniques that build up to a shake off or a shimmy off.
From Niche to Normal
Turn up, and you’ll be joining the growing ranks of Dubliners who have taken to burlesque dancing for the social side and the sport.
Byrne says the burlesque scene, which was once niche, has now become more mainstream. At her school on Foley Street, she has so many advanced students that she set up an agency to help them get professional gigs and corporate events.
There’s a social aspect of the class and there’s an exercise aspect, she says.
O’Keeffe agrees. “Burlesque is for everybody’s shape, but you just have to make sure you’re fit enough, at the same time,”she said on a recent Sunday evening, backstage at a Tiki Kiki burlesque show at The Workman’s Club. She describes it as conditioning and cardio all in one.
During the golden age of burlesque in the 1900s, it was a competitive, cut-throat scene, says O’Keeffe. These days in Dublin, it’s more like a sisterhood. She has met like-minded dancers and they have become some of her closest friends.
Backstage, as the girls get ready before the show, this camaraderie is clear. They help each other with their makeup and outfits; one of the girls has forgotten her sailor costume and has had to put out an emergency call on WhatsApp. By showtime, she has one in the right size to match the rest of her group.
“Sure if it goes wrong, just take off yer bra,” jokes O’Keeffe to calm the nerves.
O’Keeffe says she used to be “a non-confident extrovert”. She fell in love with Dita Von Teese, the US burlesque dancer who used to be married to Marilyn Manson, and had her stage name picked out long before she found burlesque classes to take in Dublin.
But at first, she was nervous about getting on stage and self-conscious about her stomach. Now, she has a huge amount of body confidence, and says it’s down to her class being so supportive.
“It’s like you’re working out your self-esteem,” she laughs. “There’s a place for everyone. Like, Lisa does make sure that everyone who wants to be on stage is on stage.”
Lady Black Pearl – aka Natasha Reid – says she was shy and depressed when she started classes. It took her a while to take to the stage. But now: “When I’m out I feel like a woman. I feel empowered,” she says before going on stage in a hula skirt to dance like Shakira.
“I suppose I underestimated the power of the class. It’s all about feeling comfortable in your skin,” says Byrne. “I kind of nurture people in the class.”
It’s not just for women, but so far, few men have signed up for burlesque or – as Captain Anchor calls it – boylesque.
Captain Anchor, aka Ciarán O’Neill, is one of the very few boylesque performers in the country. He started his act in Edinburgh, and he has struggled with it here.
When he tried to produce a boylesque show, he fell at the first hurdle: there weren’t enough male performers in Ireland to put a show together. It just him and a duo called the Big Spender Boys.
He believes boylesque would appeal to the gay scene and the burlesque scene, but part of the problem is that there’s no dedicated place for burlesque.
“We don’t get any boys,” says Byrne, who would love to teach some in future and set up performances in Pantibar.
O’Keeffe thinks there would be a huge audience for more boylesque shows in Dublin. “There’s just not enough performers,” she says. “But if you can see the Big Spender Boys in action, do. They are amaazing!”
Opponents to burlesque have throughout the years referred to it as stripping for middle-class women. But all of the dancers I spoke to strongly disagreed.
“People ask, ‘Do you strip?’ No, we do the tease!” says Natasha Reid.
“The thing about burlesque is, it isn’t just taking off your clothes, it’s more about storytelling,” says O’Neill.
Striptease is implied, says O’Keeffe, but nudity doesn’t always have to be the punchline. You can make the point you want without nudity. “There’s that kind of nouveau-style that Beyoncé loves.”
This is true of the Tiki performers; many didn’t strip completely. Four nipples were to be seen full-on during the show; two of which belonged to a ukulele-playing male comedian, who dressed as the Little Mermaid for laughs.
O’Keeffe says that she started out doing cute, cheesecake-themed performances, because of what she describes as a Catholic, almost inherent guilt. But she has since left that all behind. More recently, she’s graduated to a sexy bump-and-grind routine.
Want to spend some of Culture Night trying out burlesque? Lisa Byrne’s class will take place on Friday 18 September at 6.30pm in the Dance House on Foley Street, Dublin 1.