April 1, 2023

‘Breaking means I express myself through music’

Breaking star Emma Houston aka Shortbread
Houston was first drawn to breaking as a teenager
Venue: Manchester Date: Sunday, 6 November 17:00-19:30 GMT
Coverage: Live on BBC iPlayer and BBC Sport website and app.

There will be many magical moments which will ‘go viral’ during the Paris 2024 Olympics, but one sport likely to generate lots of engagement is breaking.

The sport, which has evolved from break dancing and the hip hop culture of the 1970s, will make its major Games bow in Paris, six years after a dazzling debut at the 2018 Youth Olympics.

Emma Houston – a former Falkirk Ladies footballer turned TV talent show dancer – and now non-binary breaking star known as ‘Shortbread’ – has worked with some of the world’s leading commercial brands like Nike, Levi’s, Adidas and Virgin.

Shortbread, who uses the pronouns they/them, is also one of Britain’s best prospects for a place at Paris 2024 and the 31-year-old Scot will look to take a step towards that target via the European Breaking Championships in Manchester this weekend.

“It feels like we’re on the brink of something because this movement is starting to take the world by storm,” they told BBC Sport.

“I really believe it will blow people’s minds at the Olympics.”

The “natural battler” inspired to dance by a film

Shortbread said they were a “highly competitive” child who “wanted to win at everything” and for the “die-hard Rangers fan” football was undoubtedly a first love.

Watching the 2004 movie You Got Served – which follows a group of dancers who become involved in street dancing competitions, or ‘battles’ – opened their eyes to a whole new form of individual expressionism. The youngster was hooked.

“Obviously at that age [aged 15] everyone’s going through a lot and I certainly was [in terms of identity] and I found this opportunity to express myself through music in a way I’d never thought about before,” they revealed.

“It was this marriage of music, movement and expression I’d been yearning for all my life.

“Individual choice is really emphasised and encouraged in hip hop culture. Having that autonomy and choice over how I moved and expressed my gender felt really liberating.”

The young breaker took on the name Shortbread after their mother revealed it was their nickname before being born and was drawn to the fact it “wasn’t gendered and pays homage” to their Scottish roots.

Talent shows and commercial success

Not long after they moved from their home in Stirling to London to study contemporary dance at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance they became a finalist on Sky TV show ‘Got to Dance’ with the Boadicea crew in 2012.

They run the Houston Dance Collective which “focuses on hip hop and queer storytelling” and possess not only a dazzling, but also highly desirable skillset.

That has seen them recruited by several high-profile brands to perform in and choreograph commercials, most recently playing a leading role in Virgin’s new uniform promotion, which allows staff to choose outfits which best suit their gender expression.

Experiences and opportunities like this, combined with world travels as a breaking star competing in Red Bull BC events often seem “mind-blowing” to Shortbread, but they admit there are many challenges.

“It’s still hard to make your living as a breaker because there are still the stigmas and stereotypes,” they said.

“For decades, breakers have almost been laughed or sniggered at, with people saying ‘oh, you just spin around on your head’ but this is now a global movement which is thriving and it’s time athletes gained the respect they deserve.”

Will Olympic history beckon?

Shortbread said they were a “natural battler” and they have clearly had to demonstrate real fight away from competition, but that characteristic could yet help them secure a historic Olympic place.

Canadian footballer Quinn and American skateboarder Alana Smith became the first athletes who identify as non-binary to compete at an Olympic Games at Tokyo 2020.

Were Shortbread to reach Paris 2024 they would likely become Team GB’s first non-binary squad member, but the breaker insists that is just one element of their story.

“Sometimes it’s frustrating just talking about what I represent because I want to be known as an artist, as an athlete and for my craft, but I do understand it’s important I talk about who I am because that can make it easier for the next generation,” they said.

The breaker explains that they would be happy to compete in the women’s competition at Paris 2024, as they compete in the ‘Bgirl’ category at major events currently, but hopes it provokes wider discussions around inclusivity.

“I know there’s a lot of talk around this at the moment, but to me I understand that with the Olympics they’re sex-based categories and not really gender, identity-based categories,” they said.

“For me it’s about having more expansive and inclusive language for those people in those categories and recognising the skills free from any gender bias.

“Remember the reason why ‘Bgirl’ categories were created in the first place was to create a place where people who weren’t ‘Bboys’ could be seen and given an opportunity to shine.

“Hopefully it gets to a point we can have these mixed categories and it’s not based on your sex because ultimately we want people to just be who they are and valued for what they can do.”

Bringing breaking to new UK fans

Shortbread, who has ranked inside the world’s top 10, will next have the opportunity to show exactly what they can do when they “zero in” on their opponents at the European Breaking Championships in Manchester.

“I love the conversation that happens in a battle and it’s so exciting to be able to bring that to the UK,” they said.

“We want to show what the legacy of hip hop culture stands for and right now with the Europeans and then the Olympics coming up it feels like we’re on the edge of something truly huge and incredible.

“They’re a great chance for us to show what breaking is all about and I know there’s going to be so much energy and support!”