"For decades Breakers have almost been laughed at, with people saying 'oh you just spin around on your head',” Emma Houston tells the WSA. “Now though, this is a global movement which is thriving and I get a bit emotional thinking about how far we’ve come.”
Image credit: @shortbreadthebreaker / Amy Heycock Photography
Emma fondly remembers being a fan of the Olympics as a child, but an initial career in football, followed by a switch to contemporary dance studies, saw the Scot take another path into professional performing.
Major campaign work with some of the biggest brands on the planet, such as adidas, Levi’s, Virgin and Nike, as well as leading theatrical performances and TV talent show appearances have followed.
More than two-decades on from marvelling at the feats of Olympic sprinters on TV though the decision to award ‘Breaking’ a place in the programme for Paris 2024 means Emma now has a “barely believable” chance to compete at a Games themselves.
The 32-year-old – who uses the pronouns they/them and competes under the name ‘Shortbread’ – is among a group of elite athletes looking to make history next year when their sport makes an Olympic debut.
Breaking itself is effectively a competitive form of break-dancing, born out of the 1970’s hip hop culture, and has dazzled crowds at the rapidly expanding Red Bull BC One series as well as the Youth Olympics in 2018.
"It’s taking the world by storm,” Emma tells the WSA. “It feels like we're on the brink of something special and I really think Breaking will blow people's minds at the Olympics!”
‘I feel like I’m a natural battler, maybe it’s because I’m Scottish!’
Image courtesy of @shortbreadthebreaker / Red Bull Content Pool
Emma showed promise on the pitch and excelled while playing for Falkirk Ladies, but their short stature saw the “die-hard Rangers fan” succumb to several injuries.
Around that time the then footballer watched the 2004 movie ‘You Got Served’, which told the story of a group of dancers who became involved in street dancing ‘battles’, and Emma’s targets were transformed.
"It was a marriage of music, movement and expression I'd been yearning for all my life,” admits Emma, who around that time was exploring the meaning of their gender identity.
"Individual choice is really encouraged in hip hop culture and having that autonomy, as well as the choice over how I moved and expressed my gender felt so liberating."
Emma studied contemporary dance in Dundee before moving to London and advancing their knowledge further at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.
The skills and experiences attained through dance styles ranging from contemporary ballet to more ‘freestyle’ routines now fuel the performances delivered ‘in battle’.
"What makes Breaking so unique are the variables that you can't have any control over,” says Emma with a smile.
“You don't know who your opponent will be, what the music will be, or what the floor will be like and although you can prepare you have to be in the moment and let that freestyle, expression come out of you despite all of the pressure in that moment of the battle."
A ‘reluctant’ role model who wants to help the next generation
Image credit: @shortbreadthebreaker / Amy Heycock Photography
‘Shortbread’ was chosen as a performing identity after their mother revealed it was Emma’s pre-birth nickname and Emma liked the fact it "wasn't gendered and pays homage" to Scottish roots.
If Emma, who competes in the ‘B-Girl’ category in accordance with their biological sex at birth, is to qualify for Paris 2024 then ‘Shortbread’ would likely become Team GB's first non-binary Olympian.
While Emma is happy to speak about their gender identity journey, they do not wish for this topic to be the only discussion point around a potential history-making appearance at next year’s Games.
I've grown up being socialised a girl, then identifying as a woman and letting go of the gender binary terms has been quite a recent thing for me which has kind of coincided with a very gendered journey through sport,” Emma tells the WSA.
“Because of that, I never want to be pulled out and visualised in a way that can actually make me feel quite unsafe and actually pull away (distract) from what I’m doing (in competition), because I’ve had situations where I’ve felt left out and excluded.
“Sometimes it can feel like, you're non-binary and suddenly you’re this floating amoeba where suddenly none of your past experience is relevant or worth talking about.
“But, if people can feel inspired, feel their world opens up because of representation as a result of me being where I am and doing what I'm doing, then that is wonderful.”
Challenging traditionalism in a new age for Breaking
Image courtesy of @shortbreadthebreaker
While the inclusion of Breaking in the Olympics has been largely welcomed by many, there is a degree of scepticism from some within, as well as outside of the sport.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been accused of overlooking the importance of some traditional events, which have seen their athlete numbers reduced in order to accommodate new ‘urban’ disciplines at recent Games.
Freestyle BMX, sport climbing, skateboarding as well as 3x3 basketball were among the additions for Tokyo 2020 and the inclusion of Breaking has been seen by some as a further ‘gimmick’ to drive social media engagements.
The IOC – and many who follow the movement closely – have argued that the Olympics must ‘move with the times’ though, or risk becoming irrelevant.
That said, figures within the Breaking community have expressed reservations because of new rules and regulations around ‘acceptable’ battle music and physical expressions.
“I really would love to like be able to get down to some classic hip hop tracks, but that can’t happen and there are lots of rules as well as stigmas around certain forms of expression,” says Emma.
“The big competitions, like the Red Bull ones are very different to say a more ‘cultural events’ but I like to think they’re an expansion of that.”
Similar debates were had within freestyle skiing and snowboarding communities when they entered the Winter Olympic programme early this century and resurfaced ahead of skateboarding’s introduction for the Tokyo 2020 summer Games.
Those are subsequently now seen as overwhelming successes, with inclusion boosting global audience and participation figures.
The world is changing for B-Girls
Emma believes Breaking will gain similar positive benefits from the Olympic experience and they are already witnessing ground-breaking changes through new paid commissions.
“I really feel like it (the Olympics) is not going to just inspire so many people and show so many people like, what breaking is, but it’s also hopefully going to educate a lot of people on hip hop culture,” they state.
“Earlier this year I did a campaign which was starring (B-Girl world champion) India, who is one of the two people to have qualified directly for the Olympics.
“It was really nice to support a younger generation B Girl who was the centre of the campaign, because she’s half my age and it shows the progress.
“When I started breaking it was so male-focused, the narratives were all around them and there was a bias but now we are in an age where there’s a pathway and I can see how much women are being celebrated.
“Yes I would have loved that when I was 15-16 and it was quite emotional for me to see because it’s mind-blowing to not only witness but be an active part of something that shows how far we have come.
Emma concludes; “the next generation won’t have many of the barriers we did and that’s really special to see.”
Image credit: @shortbreadthebreaker / Likasz Dabrowski Photography