How Do You Make a Solo?
My name is Emma Ready and I am a bgirl. I have been breaking for 24 years; training, battling, performing in theatre shows as well as teaching, judging and organising events. Breaking has taken me all over the world, and in the summer of 2017 I was flying to San Francisco, on my way to judge an international breaking competition.
I had downloaded episodes of a true crime podcast discussing a case involving coercive control. I learned that coercive control is a strategic pattern of behaviour used by the abuser designed to exploit, control and dominate the victim. I’d never heard this term before, but as I listened I realised that this is what had happened to me. Knowing there was a name for it made it easier for me to talk about, and learning about the tactics of coercive control that abusers use helped me understand that I was not responsible for what happened to me. As I continued listening and reflecting, I started imagining sequences of movement attached to my experiences when the theme tune played. By the end of the flight I had decided to make a solo about coercive control.
I just didn’t know how to do it.
What are My Aims
My aims for the piece are to
Raise awareness of coercive control
Present a solo that focuses on the victim’s experience while making the abuser’s present absence felt
Help people understand how it feels to be coercively controlled in order to challenge victim blaming
Provoke audiences to think more deeply about the issue by startling them with a new perspective
Create discussion through post-performance conversations with a coercive control expert who can explain the dynamics of abuse
Demonstrate that breaking choreography can express a wide range of emotions
Before I started work in the studio, I wanted to delve into three areas of research that would inform my choreography.
Dynamics in Dance
In 2017 I was studying Learning and Teaching in the Performing Arts at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and had been researching dynamics in dance. I wanted to gain a better theoretical and practical understanding of dynamics, and to teach others how to do the same.
Dynamics involves graded scales of movement qualities, each invoking a different emotional response. The aim of dance is to make performance come alive, to connect with the audience.
In breaking vocabulary, "dynamics" usually refers to air moves, flips, tricks and spins. These are also sometimes referred to as “blow ups”, moves that get a big reaction from the crowd. I don’t do many of these moves and I wanted to explore how to get a similar reaction to my moves. How could I connect with the audience, how could I create blow ups in my own style? I hoped understanding dynamics could help me answer these questions.
Rudolf Laban’s theory of ‘efforts’ categorised movement into four parts, each of which has two elements:
Dancers can take the quickest route to their destination, or a meandering one; use heavy or light movements; tense or loose movements; move suddenly or take their time. These elements can be used to express emotion through movement.
Laban combined these elements to create eight efforts:
Each effort has associated elements. For example “punch” is direct, heavy, bound and sudden.
Applying dynamics to movement gives dancers the freedom to be expressive beyond the basic physicality of movement. The connection with the audience is effective when dancers connect internally with themselves before externally expressing their desired communication through movement. This is why I wanted to research first and choreograph second.
2. Kinaesthetic Empathy
“...the ability to experience empathy merely by observing the movements of another human being.” (Dee Reynolds, Matthew Reason, Kinesthetic Empathy in Creative and Cultural Practices).
One experiment cited in this book explores fluent movement versus non-fluent movement, and how people respond to them. The experiment involved participants watching videos of an actor reaching across a table to pick up the salt. If a vase is placed in front of the salt, the actor has to reach around it to grasp the salt, resulting in non-fluent movement. If the vase is set to the side, the actor can reach straight out and grasp the salt more easily, resulting in fluent movement. Fluent movement was found to elicit a more positive response than non-fluent movement. This description of movement is similar to Laban’s elements direct (fluent) and indirect (non-fluent).
I thought that by combining dynamics and kinaesthetic empathy I would be able to forge an emotional connection with the audience, so that they could understand how it feels to be coerced and controlled. I wanted the audience to not only see what I was doing, but to feel it, and understand why I was doing it, thus involving them as emotionally active participants in the performance.
3. Coercive Control
“...a pattern of behaviour which seeks to entrap women and take away their liberty.” (Evan Stark, How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life).
My other strand of research was into coercive control itself. I attended relevant conferences, training seminars and lectures, read books, listened to podcasts and watched TV shows.
Women’s Aid states that
“...even though anyone can experience domestic abuse and should have access to appropriate support, the evidence shows us that there is a disproportionate impact on women. We know that women are more likely to experience domestic abuse, are more likely to be subjected to coercive control (those abusive actions that restrict personal freedom and instil fear) and are more likely to be seriously physically and mentally harmed or killed.”
This is because
“...domestic abuse perpetrated by men against women is part of wider sexism and misogyny. It is rooted in women’s unequal status in society and is part of the wider social problem of male violence against women and girls...Similarly, it is important to consider how other experiences of inequality shape survivors’ experiences of abuse- including the barriers and discrimination faced by Black and minoritised survivors, LGBT+ survivors, disabled survivors and older and teen survivors.”
Listening to people explain coercive control, I heard many metaphors and similes. We use figurative language to help us express difficult ideas, ideas that words alone cannot capture. They conjure pictures in your head and make you feel a certain way. I wanted to turn these metaphors and similes into movement tasks, and find physical ways of expressing difficult ideas without using words at all.
Coercive control is a pattern of behaviour rather than a series of isolated incidents. This pattern of behaviour slowly erodes the victim’s sense of self, sense of safety, and makes her world smaller. One example of a simile used is that it’s like carbon monoxide being invisibly seeped into a relationship. Unnoticeable day to day but cumulatively poisonous and dangerous. Or the metaphor of a frog in water. If you put a frog into a pot of boiling water it will immediately jump out, but if you put a frog in a pot of tepid water and slowly bring it to the boil it will stay there and boil to death. These encapsulate the insidious nature of coercive control.
Abusers use many tactics to coerce and control victims and they tailor their tactics so that they become very personal and specific to the victim.
The Power and Control Wheel (The Duluth Model) is a tool that can be used to identify ways abusers use power and control to manipulate victims. It identifies:
Minimising, denying and blaming
Coercion and threats
Another thing I learned is that there is a double meaning to the term second guessing:
to criticise someone’s decision after it has been made, and say what you think is wrong with it (what abusers do)
to guess what someone will do or what will happen (what victims do)
This seemed like a perfect description of the victim’s experience. I chose it for the title of my show.
Setback Number 1
I was planning to apply for research and development funding in the summer of 2017, but I received an email from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland informing me I had failed the second year of my course. This sent me into a spin. Did I want to continue with the course? What was I doing with my life? Would I still be able to break when I turned 40 in a few years? Did I want to spend the last years of my 30s studying? After some words of encouragement from my supervisor, I decided to stay on and rewrite the relevant pieces of work. In my literature review discussing dynamics I hadn’t focused on current research. So I started again, read the recent research and rewrote the review. In failing, I had extra time to learn more about dynamics, and because I read both old and new research I gained a deeper and more complete understanding of the area. I learned more than I would have if I had passed first time. All this research proved to be valuable in creating the choreography in Second Guessing, as well as in my dance teaching work.
I had decided to focus on my coursework and wait until I had resubmitted before applying for funding. Which took me to 2018.
Applying for Funding
I knew what I wanted to do, now I had to translate the ideas swimming around in my mind into funding application language. I booked an advice session at the Cultural Enterprise Office. I explained what I wanted to do and the areas I wanted to research. She repeated it back to me in a way that was structured and uncluttered, and for the first time I felt like I could see it clearly. She also explained that I would be taking on three different roles in the development: Creative Director, Choreographer and Dancer. Each position had different responsibilities, and each one needed to be paid.
I planned six weeks of studio time, I didn’t want to feel rushed or pressured. I felt that having three two-week blocks with time in between would be a good amount of space to create, reflect and redraft. I chose to spend four of the weeks in Italy where I have friends and mentors who are award winning contemporary choreographers. As this was my first solo piece choreographing on myself, I wanted to be surrounded by supportive people who understood and empathised with the topic and mentors to provide guidance and advice with the choreography. The other two weeks I spent in Edinburgh. Those were the hardest weeks.
Setback Number 2
I didn’t get the funding.
Setback Number 3
My dad died.
These two events happened in the same week in October 2018.
I wasn’t in touch with my dad. I found out about his death when his solicitor got in touch with me. It was a big shock, and a very confusing and upsetting time. I was furious. Furious with him, furious with the world. I took time off work, and after passing the second year of my course on the second attempt, I decided to leave. I wanted to get to work on my solo.
When I felt able to enter the world again, I re-read the funding rejection email. In it, they offered a feedback session to discuss areas to improve for my next application. I took them up on the offer. It was really useful, and a great way to meet one of the dance officers. I also signed up for a funding surgery at a local dance agency, where I received more really useful feedback. Once again, I rewrote what I had to and resubmitted my application in 2019.
This time, I was successful.
Rehearsal Period 1. Modena, Italy
One of the choreographic tasks I set myself was to physically express the effects of intimidation. In Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life, Evan Stark describes intimidation as:
“...the second major technology used in coercive control, instills fear, secrecy, dependence, compliance, loyalty and shame. Offenders induce these effects in three ways primarily - through threats, surveillance, and degradation. Intimidation relies heavily on what a woman’s past experience tells her a partner is likely to do and what she imagines he might do or is capable of doing.” (p249)
Laban’s Dimensional Scale, or the Defence Scale, encompasses six positions that a person can implement to defend the most vulnerable parts of the body. I adapted these movements to become defence of the senses. My adapted movements symbolise the victim’s psychological protection from the abuser, for example covering the eyes from piercing looks or gestures and the ears from shouting, interrogation, threats.
I applied dynamic elements to these movements. It starts free, light, sustained and indirect, and becomes bound, heavy, sudden and direct. As this happens, the movement becomes smaller and I take up less space on stage. Limiting space for action, identified by Professor Liz Kelly, is another tactic of the abuser which aims to make the victim’s world smaller by limiting freedom to say and do things to meet their own needs without worry or fear. This idea runs throughout the choreography.
Rehearsal Period 2. Leith, Scotland
I realised I had started at the end. The intimidation section was the climax of the piece, and I had to figure out how I was going to lead the movement to this place. Everything I tried felt flat in comparison. I had to remind myself that I was aiming to create a gradual, insidious build up to the frantic climax.
Still, I felt stuck and like I had achieved nothing after a few days. So I called my friend, we met up and she chatted it through with me. We sat in the pub looking at the power and control wheel, and discussed what order the sections of the piece could be in. The order that made most sense for the unfolding of the piece was:
Gaslighting and manipulation
Rules and regulations and hypervigilance
Repeat to convey the cycle of abuse
Gaslighting involves the abuser taking the narrative and reshaping it to suit himself, making the victim doubt her own reality. I wanted to start the piece with a pattern of movement to reflect that coercive control is a pattern of behaviour. The gaslighting and manipulation tasks gradually break that pattern down, just as the abuser breaks the victim down.
I added extra layers by employing Laban’s efforts. I made the movement heavy and bound, but with my leg flicking to convey nervous tension subconsciously escaping the body. This ended up with a sequence of movements executed with a restless leg. I try to stop the leg shaking by holding onto it, but the shaking transfers to another part of my body, like a game of Whack-A-Mole. This makes the movement unpredictable to me, and different each time I perform it. It has an uncomfortable, off-balance, stressful quality, and helps keep my performances fresh, as I never know quite what’s going to happen.
I incorporated a slashing movement to pull myself suddenly from standing to the floor. This quick, unexpected level change creates a shocking moment that signifies the feeling of being trapped and unable to escape.
For manipulation, I worked with the idea of pushing and pulling. I took the broken down gaslighting pattern and experimented with manipulating myself by pushing my leg with my arm, forcing it into the next move. The resulting pattern becomes not only manipulated, but performing it is difficult and tiring, conveying the exhaustion experienced by victims. I use awkward, uncomfortable, off-balance positions that test the extremes of my flexibility, and each time I repeat the pattern I start from a place of disadvantage and disorientation. I also tease the intimidation pattern here, creating a motif and a warning of what’s to come.
Rehearsal Period 3. Torino, Italy
In the final weeks I worked on rules and regulations and hypervigilance. Abusers create their own sets of unspoken rules which they enforce, micromanage and change without warning. This moving of the goalposts is a way of keeping the victim confused and walking on eggshells. Another metaphor used to explain this is shifting sands: the ground always moving under your feet. Hypervigilance is a state of high alertness, always looking over your shoulder for hidden dangers.
An abuser’s rule might be that he tells the victim what clothes she is allowed to wear. He may say that he is doing this because he cares about her, but the victim knows if she doesn’t wear what he wants, if she doesn’t follow the rules, he will punish her. I use articles of clothing in the choreography to highlight this.
I perform this section while constantly looking at a hair bobble that is set on the stage behind me. This helps to signify how uncomfortable, and what a constant strain being hypervigilant is.
The bobble seems to control my movement, until I tie my hair up with it. Once the bobble is on, another rule quickly comes into place, there is no time to relax. My attention is drawn to a jacket. There is a struggle where I resist putting the jacket on, and once I do I become trapped inside it. I want to get out but can’t find a way. The jacket now controls my movements. It’s stiff and hard and changes my posture, making me stand uncomfortably straight. My movement is restricted, and all my movement is bound.
Performance and Plans for Next Development Stage
In November 2019 I performed the piece in Edinburgh. My friend filmed it and this footage has been great for sharing with interested people. For the next development phase I planned to extend the piece from thirteen minutes to thirty. I had a team of amazing artists involved and I was ready to start writing the funding application in March 2020.
Setback Number 4
Covid 19 lockdowns were followed by a surge in domestic abuse, the UN described this as a Shadow Pandemic. In the UK, femicide rates rose to over twice the average of two women a week, the highest rate in the past eleven years.
I took some time away from the project as lockdowns ensued, and concentrated more on learning digital skills for teaching online dance classes. As everyone now had limited space for action, I felt it was a time to focus on reaching out rather than in.
After a break of several months, I came back to it. We were still locked down, and working on a theatre piece wasn’t plausible. I booked a session with an advisor from Creative Entrepreneurs' Club, and she gave me ideas for how to proceed. During each rehearsal period in 2019, I worked with videographers to create short films as a way of documenting the project. The new idea was to film the piece in a public space, to challenge the idea that abuse only happens behind closed doors.
I attended a Glasgow Connected Arts Network video activism workshop where I mentioned my ideas for the film, and another participant who is a film-maker got in touch to say she was interested in working with me on the project. We have been in contact since, and we had the opportunity to film the piece on a beach and present it as part of ZOOTV x Ian Abbott at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2021.
I have applied for funding to make a site-specific film set in a supermarket, one of the few places a victim of coercive control might be allowed to visit alone as abusers often do not allow victims to socialise in an attempt to isolate them from their support network. Supermarkets were also one of the few public places we could all visit during lockdown. I am awaiting the decision.
I will return to the theatre piece and extend it. I want to offer a package of performance items to take on tour. The films, a short version and long of the theatre piece, discussions with experts as well as written works and interviews. I want to tour schools, universities, community centres, theatres, festivals, parliaments, women’s prisons, conferences and reach as wide an audience as I can.
My Advice for Making a Solo
There will be setbacks, you will overcome them. Don’t forget why you want to make this work, that will continue to inspire you through the difficult times. Ask for help. Talk to people you trust, they will offer you a different perspective and get you out of your head. Take feedback when it’s offered, take the call, take the meeting, take the opportunities that come your way, take the help that is offered. Talk to people. Networking isn’t as scary as it sounds.
National Domestic Abuse Helpline UK
0808 2000 247
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, November 2021
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“One of the best bgirls on the planet. If you don’t know, get to know!”
During her 23 years of breaking, Emma Ready has established an international reputation as an inspirational, empathetic motivator who is both approachable and accessible. Her students describe her as a “treasure trove of information” and she's known for her clear, helpful and insightful approach to sharing knowledge.
“A Rock Star for giving the type of quality answers that belong in a book!”
Emma’s leadership style has been described as inspirational and elevating. She’s renowned for her creativity and has been dubbed “10,000 Moves Master”. Her recent choreographic work looks at the issue of coercive control and has been described as “utterly awfully wonderful” and “hauntingly beautiful”.
Bgirl, choreographer, creative coach.
Emma Ready, quietly causing riots.
Emma Ready, Credit Sara Tamburro
Read the Hip Hop Dance Almanac Vol 3 interview with Emma Ready here.