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‘Smooth Goddess’ brings roller skating classes to studio setting.

‘The world is diverse, and I feel like my class represents that’ by Tribune News Service | May 5, 2022 at 3:00 a.m.
Kari Anne Bakker, of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, stretches with others while taking an intermediate/advanced roller skating class with teacher Myesha McCaskill. Bakker was traveling to the U.S. for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic to visit roller skating communities in Chicago, New York, and Atlanta. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

CHICAGO -- Before teaching her students how to skate, Myesha McCaskill teaches them how to fall.

The lesson came in handy on a late February Saturday afternoon, as some of her students -- myself included -- struggled to stay balanced on four wheels, sometimes holding onto the window sill, wall or one of the pillars in the studio.

The safest way to land is on your butt, she tells us. Then, she teaches us how to get back up.

When people fell, the class followed McCaskill's lead and applauded as they got back up, creating a welcoming space for imperfection.

In her beginner's class, McCaskill -- known as "Smooth Goddess" on the rink -- teaches people how to skate the correct way, stop by forming a T with their skates instead of relying on brakes, skate backward and turn around, among a few other tricks.

McCaskill, who started the class through her business, "Inspired by Favor," at The Rooted Space, 1803 W. Byron St., about eight months ago, wanted to teach outside of a skating rink, where a more diverse group of people would feel comfortable attending, she said.

She teaches there every Saturday unless she's out of town. The beginner class is from 1-3 p.m. and the intermediate/advanced class is from 3-5 p.m. She also teaches at the Chicago Athletic Club once a month.

"Before I even started teaching I told myself, I spoke it into existence, I said, 'I want to be able to have a class that's diverse. That I'm reaching people from all over, not just African Americans, but I want to reach everyone,' " she said. "Because the world is diverse, and I feel like my class represents that."

'When you put your skates on, you feel very welcomed'

Isaac Anderson, who has taken a few of McCaskill's classes and attended her advanced class in February, said the classes have helped him better understand the techniques of each move. For him, skating is a social outlet. He wants to be good at it, but not necessarily a professional skater, he said.

"My goal is just to be good enough just to like maybe get a little shine, but that's it," Anderson said. "Nothing too major."

He also appreciates the diversity of the class.

"I think there's not too many places, especially in Chicago, you can find just all types of nationalities in one place, skating," Anderson said. "It's something where we all have something in common where we just come together and just have fun. You're not thinking about who's Black and white, none of those things. It's just beautiful. It's just the energy like skating is one of those things where you can just have fun."

The beginner's class was Matthew Johnson's first time on roller skates in more than 40 years, he said. He plans to keep going to the class until he's comfortable not just skating again but also teaching kids the basics.

Johnson is a recreation specialist at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, where he brings sports programs to the youth at the center.

After finding skates in storage rooms at the detention center, Johnson decided he'd like to introduce a roller skating program to the youth.

He surveyed the kids at the detention center and about 90% said they would be interested in the program. Only about 10% said they've roller skated before, he said.

Johnson also wants to bring roller skating to Dewey Elementary Academy of Fine Arts, the Englewood school he once attended; he's now a community representative on the Local School Council.

"The principal was looking for more programs to introduce to our young men," he said. "You know, get them an outlet to do things after school."

Before taking McCaskill's class, Johnson had been watching YouTube videos to learn how to skate again. He said he heard about "Smooth Goddess" through people in Englewood and other friends on the North Side who recommended her.

"The key to her class compared to some of the ones I was watching on YouTube is, she actually models what she tells you to do," Johnson said. "And so it helps, you know, to see her and explain it."

McCaskill explained how to shift weight to stay balanced between moves.

"If you don't think about where you're going to shift it to, you're gonna always be on the ground," she tells the class, shaking her legs as if she's about to fall.

"The right leg goes forward," she says, showing the move as she teaches how to turn around. "As I turn, my head, my body turns, too, so it's one motion. I'ma turn my head and my body, bringing this left leg all the way in, form a line. I'ma shift my body weight to the other foot and bring this back leg around."

Kari Anne Bakker was visiting Chicago from Amsterdam in February, touring and skating in different cities in the U.S. before returning home. Friends she'd met through skating hosted her for six days in Chicago before she headed to Atlanta for the Jive Biscuit Skate Jam, where McCaskill would also be the following weekend.

Bakker has been skating for 15 years, "but not on this level," she said.

"The culture actually came from here," she said after attending McCaskill's advanced class. "So when you're here you get a sense of history and resources that you don't get in Europe."

In the advanced class, McCaskill teaches students more difficult moves, like the Crazy Legs and how to spin. She ends both classes with a dance lesson.

Bakker said she learned a lot in the class.

"I think she's amazing," she said. "She's a very good instructor because she's very clear. And she's very good at explaining how your weight distribution is, so you actually roll instead of just doing steps. And it makes you a better skater."

Bakker said she appreciates the skate community in Chicago, and their welcoming nature to people regardless of their skill level. She's able to afford what she calls skate trips because of that community, staying with friends she's met through skating.

"It's a really nice community. When you put your skates on, you feel very welcomed," Bakker said. "And they consider you a skater if you put in work, and then they'll share all their knowledge and all their wisdom and also really be supportive of you skating."

'A representation of Black skate culture'

I met McCaskill about a week before I took her class, at Chicago's Chicken and Waffles on Martin Luther King Drive in Bronzeville. She sat in a booth, wearing a coral colored fedora hat, matching pants and a floral shirt -- a mix of blues, purples and pinks.

She owns several fedoras, in many different colors. They're part of her skating style as she uses them in some of her moves on the rink.

On the rink, McCaskill glides as she turns and skates forward and backward, dipping down into a move then coming back up or dipping as she spins continuously.

In Chicago, the dominant style is JB Culture, named after James Brown because people used to skate to his music.

In that style, skaters use moves like the Crazy Legs, the Godfather or the Big Will in their routines, McCaskill explains.

Skaters come into their own style and are often nicknamed based on that style, said Elon "Skate Nerd" Larkin, one of McCaskill's mentors.

Skate names have been around since the '60s or '70s, he said. Groups or teams of skaters give each person a nickname.

The names usually describe a skater's style or moves. For example, a guy who's really flexible might be called "Rubber Band Man" on the rink, Larkin said.

"I remember that there was a Rubber Band Man, there was the Black Knight, those types of names historically from like the '70s, that people that came before us pass those stories down to us," he said. "And we just kind of kept that tradition going by giving names to skaters that skate today. And it emulates and it reflects how they skate."

A DJ at a rink saw McCaskill skating one day and saw how smooth she was. But she's also carried herself in a respectful yet humble manner, Larkin said. "And so he gave her the 'Smooth Goddess' name."

It's important to her to stay connected to her culture and where she comes from, she says.

"I feel like I wouldn't be who I am if it wasn't for the culture. If it wasn't for the JB Culture and the people who have poured into me to get me (here)," she said. "I didn't get like this overnight."

In bringing more diverse groups of people into the culture, she's also representing that culture wherever she goes, McCaskill said.

"I feel like, you know, even though I'm placed on the North Side, I'm still a representation of Black skate culture," she said.

Larkin said McCaskill's willingness to put in the work is why he wanted to help her improve. He met McCaskill in 2016 after a national skate jam in Detroit where she competed for the first time and won, though not with a unanimous vote, Larkin said.

"She and I talked about that and I told her, 'I'll get you to a place where, beyond a shadow of a doubt, you'll be the better competitor,' " he said. "She took that and she was dedicated. I only work with people that are dedicated."

Larkin was in the 2005 skating movie "Roll Bounce," which brought in skaters from all over the world to Chicago for filming, he said. Between learning from that experience and traveling, he picked up new moves and made them his own, which made him more competitive, he said. He passes down those moves to his students so they can be more competitive themselves.

"If you're only marketable and you only appeal to where you come from, then you won't be able to have an effect on the world," Larkin said. "But if you keep an open mind, and you encourage people to have fun, be themselves, then everyone will want to come home and skate with you from all over."

'She loves to teach people'

When McCaskill was 10 years old, her stepdad got her her first pair of skates.

She'd gone to a skating rink in Gurnee, where she lived, and saw several kids with a pair of their own skates, she said. So she asked her parents for skates that Christmas.

Her first skates were inline skates, but she would soon transition to the traditional roller skates, which are the kind she still uses today.

In the 30 years since then, McCaskill taught herself the basics of skating, picked up some JB-style moves from watching others in the skating scene, and credits her three mentors for helping her improve her skills and come into her own style of skating.

"She's been skating ever since she started. She just never stopped," her mom, Gerri McCaskill, said. "She loves it, and it comes natural to her, you know, she just flows."

Larkin said he was excited but also nervous for McCaskill when she told him she wanted to start teaching skate classes. He worries that social media can make this class go viral, creating a demand McCaskill might not be able to keep up with on her own, he said.

"But I'm excited for her because she gets to express herself," he said. "She gets to teach people she loves to teach people and pass down knowledge."

McCaskill has traveled across the U.S. and learned different styles, which she incorporates into her own skating and in her lessons.

She said her students should decide which style they prefer.

"I felt like I wanted to add something to the Chicago skate culture," McCaskill said. "A more welcoming environment outside of the skating rink, to welcome all people. And to be able to teach things that people learn from different cities."

McCaskill was also in the 2019 HBO documentary "United Skates," which focuses on skating communities in Los Angeles, North Carolina and the Chicago area as filmmakers trace the origins of Black roller-skating culture.

Larkin said it's been rewarding to see how skilled McCaskill has become because she didn't grow up in the Chicago skate scene.

McCaskill was raised in Gurnee, about 40 miles north of Chicago before her family moved back to the city, and she was in Mississippi for four years in college skating and in Chicago only during school breaks.

"It's a proud moment altogether because she was able to come up as a natural, like she was naturally from this rich skate culture," he said. "But then also she was able to put our personal spin on to where she can just be known as 'Smooth Goddess.' "

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