Making a living from breaking – EMMA HOUSTON AKA Bgirl Shortbread

Apr 28, 2020 | Inspiration, Interviews, Whazzup

Making a living from breaking is either a dream or reality for some of us. Doing what you love can be very fulfilling but comes with struggles as well. Learning from people who have been in this business for a longer period of time can be very helpful – therefore Bgirlsessions started to ask around!

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor bgirl shortbread

Bgirl Shortbread at the RedBull BC one UK cypher in 2019

Many of you know her as bgirl shortbread – always smiling when you see her – at the same time a fierce opponent in battles. Originally from Scotland but currently based in London – Emma Houston has been breaking for over 10 years now. She decided to live from dancing. She is featured in the LEVIS pride campaign – choreographed an adidas originals campaign

Emma Houston aka bgirl shortbread with bgirl Roxy, Angelica Lee and Gemma Hoddy for the adidas falcon campaign

Besides advertisement campaigns: Emma is active in multiple theater productions. And if you think this is not enough – she is still repping on the battle floor.

Bgirl Shortbread vs bgirl Rawgina – semifinals RedBull BC one UK cypher

1. When did you decide you wanted to live from dancing?

After I found Hip Hop Culture and saw Breaking aged 16 I knew from then that’s what I wanted to do- at first I didn’t think about making a living from it I just followed my passion and wanted to start dancing.

2. You have a background in contemporary dance – do you see yourself as a contemporary dancer as well or more a breaker?

I studied contemporary dance initially because I wanted a deeper understanding of my body. That in turn got me into making theatre and thinking about dance and movement in different ways. Coming from a sports background I wanted to learn and understand new qualities of moving and how that would help me in Breaking and in anything else I’d want to pursue physically. I see myself as a movement practitioner first and foremost: I love other styles besides breaking and contemporary, (Hip Hop, locking, house, popping etc) however, breaking is the style that’s always felt most ‘me’ and has my heart.

3.  What are gigs you are the most proud of ?

I am Most proud of my latest role in REDD, Boy Blues Theatre Production in 2019

Also, as a younger dancer, being a finalist on Got To Dance was a huge achievement in 2012 as it showed me the possibilities I was capable of.  Performing live on TV and in front of 6,000 audience members was an opportunity I couldn’t have imagined happening to me at that point in time. I am also very proud of my achievements in Breaking. I am also so happy to see how the scene is growing and women are being featured and celebrated more.

5. What are the pro’s and con’s of each of the different types of gigs

 Some of the pros are the incredible people I’ve met, the movers and beings who have shaped me, challenged me, connected with me and shared with me over the years. I’ve learned so much from the different dancers from near and far, and they have become my worldwide community/family. Performing is a really special experience: moments where you are fully and utterly present. It is very transformative and life affirming, and to me feels like a spiritual experience when I’m really connected. The highs that come from performing are like no other experience. I also really enjoy entertaining people. Battling, theatre, and performing in intimate settings again is unique from one another.

Each moment performing is a blessing and a teacher. We also change and shape people we perform with, and perform for. We have the ability to inspire, move, challenge and change the world around us through art.  Like everything in life, there are pros and cons. It’s about what you choose to focus on and learn from. I can sometimes get overwhelmed and caught up by the injustices I see/have experienced in the industry and for me it’s about recognising when I’m off balance and come back to my centre. I am a passionate person which sometimes can negatively affect me when I get caught up too much in problems that I feel maybe I can’t immediately change or frustrated that things are the way that they are. I try to find a balance between fighting for equality and fair treatment whilst not letting it consume me so much that it ends up dimming my light and what I bring to the table. It’s a journey for sure, because also when I see things I think need to change I can’t sit and do nothing!

I’m fortunate I get to do what I love, to perform in different ways with amazing people, share my passion with a range of audiences, inspire people around me, and share positive and real messages. 

Cons I would say are the frustrations at feeling like there still aren’t enough roles or opportunities for female breakers who present and dance in alternate ways across the industry. Mainly in the commercial sector I often see female backing dancers always having to show lots of skin and appeal sexually: these women no doubt are amazing at what they do but it would be great if it didn’t always have to revolve around how sexually appealing they are as to how valuable they are in the industry. Imagine seeing women celebrated for their talent FIRST: thus also showing us in all different lights with various expressions of movement: not that one standard always having to be met. Some individuals want to express themselves in those ways, but not every single individual. It’s unfair to hold us all to the same standard and to constantly tell women and girls the only way to be a dancer of value in the commercial industry is through sex appeal. Also, the way we are seeing women portrayed is often as submissive, and objectified choreographically.  That is a part of many more issues across our society as a whole. That’s why breaking is so amazing: it’s not about that at all, it’s about your skills and that is the most important factor. It is frustrating though when bboys and bgirls are cast for a job and the bgirl/s still have to appeal sexually if casted, rather than considering the practicality of what is required. (it’s also not as common that bgirls are casted as much as bboys corporately/commercially).

It is frustrating when the bgirl/s still have to appeal sexually if casted

I’ve experienced clients wanting the female to look a certain way (which often fits a certain subjective brief) I was recently told at a casting that I should have worn my hair down, to stand a better chance at getting the gig. On the casting notice none of this was in the brief. It said, high level Bgirls. Bearing in mind for practical reasons I wore my hair up so that I could break without it getting in my way. Where I can understand the comment, the focus was not on what I was doing it was on how feminine I was appearing to the client. This is still a reality and a barrier for a lot of women being visible and represented in the industry. This is not knocking any woman for expressing themselves in a way that makes them feel good, it’s just an acknowledgment that we don’t all feel good expressing ourselves in the same ways as each other. (obviously, right).

6. Tell us 3 hard lessons you learnt from working in this industry (for those who are considering)

1) You will most likely have to be super versatile in order to get booked commercially (there’s no harm in being versatile of course), still have to present yourself in a certain way according to your gender, and as a result may feel a disconnect to the content of the work as it may not represent you/tell a story you relate to. These of course are choices as to whether you put yourself in certain environments, but can be a frustrating reality to come up against especially if you feel you fulfill the job briefs in the dance area or you weren’t aware of these expectations prior to doing a job. I sometimes feel that I’d suit the male brief better, for example, but wouldn’t be considered in either category. That can be a really hard pill to swallow. This then can affect the work you choose to involve yourself with, which in turn can actually be a real positive, as you then surround yourself with people who see your talent above your gender, and probably get you involved in work where the creative content can be more fulfilling and relevant to the life you want to live.

2)I’ve learned that to book commercial jobs it’s not as straightforward as being amazing at what you do. Sadly, there’s still a huge pressure on women to be a certain way for commercial gigs. That unless there’s a role specifically written for you, a woman presenting in a stereotypically ‘masculine’ way (through natural body type, mannerisms, way of dressing, way of naturally moving) then you may feel that you’re having to compromise on your authenticity in order to appeal to a casting director or choreographer. Again, I don’t really choose to work commercially because of these reasons. However, if there was more versatility in casting, I would love to be more involved in the commercial sector. I work more in the theatre realm where I feel there’s more freedom to be myself, and my movements aren’t gendered.

3)That even if/when you do book certain jobs you still have to go through the hierarchies and gender politics that are rarely confronted or talked about openly. This one can happen in any environment: corporate, commercial, theatre, breaking, etc. Again its about seeking out the companies, choreographers and individuals who see YOU, and you trust. Separating the jobs where I am giving my whole self to the process/project and some jobs just being “jobs”, is a lesson I’ve learned over time in the industry. Ideally we would love to be ourselves in any and every project we do but I’ve found because of these microaggressions I have had to remove the personal investment from certain jobs and projects. Really it’s just about being mentally prepared and then choosing with that knowledge which projects you really want to invest your precious time in. It’s all learning. I’m hoping I am raising awareness and changing the industry bit by bit through my own personal actions and presence. Like Audre Lorde said, ‘Your silence will not protect you’ and often, your silence is taken as consent. I want dancers to know they do have power to change things, and your voice is needed in this industry to help shape it into a better industry for ALL women, all people. This, just to clarify, is about making it a better industry for ALL people.

I want dancers to know they do have power to change things, and your voice in needed in this industry

7. What are your dreams/ambitions for the coming years

Coming up against these ‘glass ceilings’ regularly has given me such a strong purpose in the industry, to fight for equality, representation, opportunity and progress. My ambitions cannot be realised in an industry that doesn’t cater to me. So, I want to change the industry so it can accommodate our ambitions. We are here and we are ready. We just need the chance to show ourselves. I want to keep being me, keep pushing boundaries in theatre, keep breaking and challenging myself competitively, as well as changing the commercial sector (somehow?!?!) to accommodate a versatility of humans. We need to see all kinds of people on our screens: because that is real life!

Thank you Emma for sharing your knowledge and experience with us!