The Skate Smiles Club: Pushing the limits of fun in South African women’s skateboarding with Olympian Melissa Williams
South African women’s Olympic skateboarder Melissa Williams (aka ‘Suzy Snakes’) has formed the ‘Skate Smiles Club’ in Cape Town for women’s skateboarding, creating a space where female skaters can come together to skate and enjoy a sense of community. “Basically,” says Melissa, “it’s all about supporting women in skateboarding, doing events, projects, workshops and most important of all… smiles, haha.”
Interview by blunt mag. Photos by Leon Bester.
What is the Skate Smiles Club all about?
I started Skate Smiles Club cos I’d been doing skate projects off of my Suzy Snakes Insta and I realised that I probably needed to create something that was more representative of the community and the types of projects that we’re doing. Just kind of a home for everything to live and be its own thing. Basically it’s all about supporting women in skateboarding, doing events, projects, workshops and most important of all… smiles, haha.
“For me as a woman, I feel it’s important for us to have a physical space where we have complete ownership as women. It’s important that everyone feels comfortable and supported, to express ourselves and to feel and share the power that we have as a community.”
Women’s skating is definitely growing in South Africa, not just in Cape Town but everywhere – why do you think this is?
I think there might be lots of reasons, globally the women’s skating scene is popping off like crazy and it’s the coolest thing to see. I think there are contributing factors like skate brands putting more women on their teams, more women having pro boards, signature shoes, covers and interviews in mags like Thrasher and things like skateboarding being included in the Olympics. Also just the general movement of liberation of women on all fronts. Personally I’m feeling like I can do things that I maybe didn’t think I could before and I’m hugely encouraged by the community around me. I think other people might be feeling the same way and it shows in the growth and progression all over the world. It’s super exciting!
What do the more hardcore guy skaters have to say about this, are most of them supportive, dismissive or just not really interested either way?
Personally, when I go skating I try to avoid the negative or dismissive vibes and surround myself with positive, supportive people. It’s not always possible, sadly the world seems to still have pockets of bad vibes. But I would say there’s plenty of good vibes out there, so you just have to kind of find it and make it and then it’s all pretty good, haha.
“Skateboarding brings everyone together in such a special way. I’m so stoked that we all get to share this super fun thing together. Everyone that comes to the skate night is really supportive of each other and that’s a really amazing space to have and makes me super happy, haha.”
But you still have womens-only nights anyway? What’s the main reason for this?
For me as a woman, I feel it’s important for us to have a physical space where we have complete ownership as women. It’s important that everyone feels comfortable and supported, to express ourselves and to feel and share the power that we have as a community. I feel that the dynamics of a male-dominated space can be complicated and not always easy to navigate as a woman. Sometimes, in certain environments you can feel unseen and not respected too much as equals. But apart from all that stuff, it’s just great to have a skatepark full of women just ripping and having fun, haha.
They all seemed really supportive at the Auckland Massacre where the girls were ripping? Who are some of the current standouts in SA womens’s skating for you?
Unfortunately I missed that event so I can’t comment too much on that one specifically, but from what I’ve heard, everyone was ripping and it’s really cool that The Shred and Vans are so supportive of women’s skateboarding. They’re always including women’s skateboarding in events and there was also an equal prize purse at the Auckland Park Massacre. Woah, the current standouts, haha, that’s a tough one, cos every single person is really just ripping and pushing their own skateboarding so much! You can definitely give us a follow on Insta @skatesmilesclub to see the video edits and photos from the events and you’ll be able to find your own favourite rippers, haha.
The girls at the last Vans Women’s Skate Night were from a pretty diverse background, it seems skating is attracting people from all walks of life to these gatherings?
It’s really cool how skateboarding’s for everybody and brings everyone together in such a special way. I’m so stoked that we all get to share this super fun thing together. Everyone that comes to the skate night is really supportive of each other and that’s a really amazing space to have and makes me super happy, haha.
Tell us about the activities at these nights, like skate races and different stuff?
We try to mix it up and do different things because everyone is kind of at different stages of learning. Sometimes we’ll do a bit of a workshop, for instance how to manual or how to drop off something and everyone really enjoys those. Then sometimes we’ll try to take a skill that everyone might already have, like pushing, and turn it into a fun challenge, like the skate race. We’ve done a fun challenge night where people had to pick challenges out of a jar and that was silly fun things like do three hippy jumps in a row, or ollie down the stairs holding someone’s hand. They were kind of challenges for all the different levels and just fun, haha. We also do best trick jams for the skateboarders who are more advanced, as a fun way to kind of push the progression and show the younger ones what is possible.
How is that received by the women skaters who attend? What kind of feedback do they give you afterwards?
Everyone seems to really love the night so much, it’s really a special time for everyone and I’m super grateful that Vans have been supporting the movement since 2018. For me, it feels like it makes a huge difference in all of our lives to be able to come together once a month like this.
“The Olympics was a huge honour and beyond any of my wildest dreams. The level of women’s skateboarding is phenomenal and it was really the coolest being able to see it all with my own eyes and to experience what it’s like to be a part of an event like that.”
For a long time you and a few others flew the flag for women’s skating in South Africa, you must be so stoked that things are changing fast and the numbers of women skating and the standard is improving all the time?
It’s the best! Really, haha. I’ve been meeting so many incredible like-minded people from all over the world and I’m so stoked to be part of this really cool community and to have a place in it all. It fills me with great joy and I’m pumped to keep pushing things for all the years to come!
But there must still be a few challenges in growing it. What obstacles do you think still face the growth of women’s skating in South Africa and how do you think they can be overcome?
That’s an interesting question and yeah for sure there are all sorts of obstacles that women would still be facing in skateboarding in South Africa. I mean for one, it’s not as safe for a group of women to go street skating as it might be for men, so the accessibility to the progression of street skating is pretty limited. Strangely there are still groups of people who think about women’s skateboarding in a very limited way, and I suppose I would encourage all of us (me included) to really challenge our perceptions and reevaluate our view points whenever we can. There are stale ’n mouldy perspectives hiding in all of our brains and I think it’s important to shake ‘em out, haha. I also think simple acts of kindness and respect from everyone, for everyone, would go a long way. Me included, haha.
Tell us about your time as the first of two South African women skaters to attend the Olympics, what did you feel, see, experience and learn there?
It was pretty interesting and super special. Of course it was a huge honour and beyond any of my wildest dreams. The level of women’s skateboarding is phenomenal and it was really the coolest being able to see it all with my own eyes and to experience what it’s like to be a part of an event like that. People are really putting in a huge amount of hard work and sacrifice to be their best out there, and that’s a big thing that I didn’t realise before. I just kind of thought people were naturally talented and that’s that, but everyone is putting in the work like you won’t believe and it’s really quite humbling. It definitely takes a certain kind of person to do it and I have so much respect and admiration for the people that I met when I was there.
What next for women’s skating, the Skate Smiles Club and Melissa Williams, what are your future plans in the SA skate world?
Keep pushing! I just want to try my best to do what I can to help create a really positive, inclusive, encouraging and supportive community for everyone. To help push the level of skateboarding in all its glorious aspects and to just have as much fun as possible with everyone!
When is your next event?
We’ll be doing a Skate Smiles Club Women’s Skate Jam and Braai on Sunday 27 November at the Strand DIY park. It will be running all day, from 10am to 5pm and we’re just all getting together to skate, hangout, braai, film some clips and smile as much as possible, haha.
And when is the next women’s skate night?
We also have the Vans Women’s Skate Night happening on Friday 9 December at The Shred Skatepark from 6pm – 9pm and we’re actually running a screen printing workshop on the night. When we can, it’s super cool to incorporate the other creative aspects that’s connected to skateboarding and DIY culture too, so this should be a lot of fun. Both events are totally free.
Thanks for your support and taking the time to talk about women’s skateboarding and Skate Smiles Club with me!
Check out more photos of some the most recent Vans Women’s Skate Night below:
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