Girls Crank Up Their Confidence at Rock Camp

The equation is deceptively simple: Form a band, write a song, perform it in front of a few hundred people at a nightclub. Feel pretty damn awesome.

At New York's Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, both the 8- to 18-year-old girls and the 18+ ladies follow the same rock 'n' roll prescription over a week or weekend, respectively. Instrument instruction in the morning, band practice in the afternoon. Marveling at newly blistered fingertips, the mostly inexperienced girls and women learn how to play a B chord, smash a cymbal, or scream whatever lyric comes to mind—without fear. Screw up a note? No such thing. Instead, campers are encouraged to simply say, "I rock."

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They rock; they roll; they do their homework before they go to bed. (Photo: Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls/Creative Commons)

"It's about music, but it's more about empowerment and making girls and women feel good about themselves," says Emmet Moeller, director of Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls. The camp is named after Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, one of the first women musicians and songwriters to play what's now called "rock 'n' roll."

This year marks the tenth year since the very first Rock 'N' Roll Camp for Girls started in 2001 in Portland, Oregon, at the Portland State University Campus. On June 8, 2011, the Portland Mayor and City Council declared the day "Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls Day" and gave a proclamation to honor the camp's work in the community.

Since those early days, girls' rock camps have sprouted up all over the world—from New York to Tennessee to Sweden. There's a Girls Rock Camp Alliance conference with members from most of the camps (this year's was in D.C.), and there's been a movie made about the Portland camp.

"Our Rock Camp was conceptualized on the heels of the first Ladyfest in Olympia, Washington, in 2000, and our first summer camp happened in 2001," says sts [sic], Program Director for the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls in Portland. "It was a natural progression, starting with the '80s punk rock movement and then Riot Grrrl bands (who were recalled last week in a New York Times article)."

The Portland camps inspired the New York edition, which in turn influenced international camps.

"It was the same old problem as always," says Åsa Johnsen, executive director for the Swedish series of girls rock camps called Popkollo (roughly translated as "pop camp"). "You would look at the lineups at festivals and clubs and ask yourself for the hundredth time: Where are all the women and girls?"

Sweden's camps stem from a 100-year-old, state-funded Swedish tradition that gives less fortunate children from urban areas the opportunity to spend summers at camps in the countryside.

"So our idea was basically the same," says Johnsen. "Only instead of city kids, our idea was that girls could go away and play music in a positive environment."

Beth Warshaw-Duncan, founder of the Philadelphia camp Girls Rock Philly, notes that women and girls learn to create together instead of simply consuming together, the way women, she says, are often encouraged to bond. 

"My favorite moment is always when I overhear campers making plans to head to the music store together so they can figure out exactly what they need for their band, especially since a space like that can be so intimidating for new musicians."

In addition to music lessons from rock 'n' roll pros and band practice, the camps offer merchandise-making classes, T-shirt silk-screening workshops, self-defense classes, songwriting classes, and life lessons from real-life rock stars. Musician Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill, Le Tigre) might just pop by to give a PowerPoint presentation on her favorite women-fronted bands.

"I consider Kathleen a volunteer like all of our other volunteers," says Willie Mae director Emmet Moeller. "It's part of what makes camp great. She's one of many pretty incredible people that give their time."

While the various camps offer many of the same kinds of workshops, a few camps have particular expertise and differing formats. The Philly camp, for example, offers an extra bit of technical and studio training (based on founder Beth Warshaw-Duncan's radio production and engineering experience). Sweden's Popkollo is a series of six-week-long camps in various cities. Each camp has a different theme—from metal to hip-hop—and a smaller number of campers attend each one (15 to 25 per camp)

Most of the U.S. camps are supported by grants, foundations, support from individual donors, and year-round support from a robust volunteer base.

"Many organizations struggle to keep their volunteers engaged or get them to show up," says Moeller, who started in 2005 as a volunteer and joined the team in 2006. "I've thought a lot about why everyone is so excited to be there and why our group is so cohesive. I think the volunteers get just as much out of it as the participant; it's a different kind of fulfillment. I know as a volunteer in 2005 I saw people who were like me in that they loved music, and had been told that they couldn't do what they wanted to do because of the way they were born. It was one of the first places I ever felt at home. And then you're also immediately hooked into this great network of musicians and radical people and people doing all kinds of work. Personally, I can trace almost everything in my life back to rock camp."

Photo by Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls/Creative Commons via Flickr.

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