At Girls Rock! camp, guitars and Girl Power reign

At this very moment, an ungodly racket is likely emanating from the classrooms of E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Petworth -- the high-pitched squeal of guitars revved up with distortion, the elephant-stomp rumble of the electric bass, the boom-bang-crash of drums. Above it all, however, you'll make out the distinctly sweet chatter of 45 excited girls.

Maya D., drummer for the Wild Ones, performed during the Girls Rock! DC Camper Showcase in  2013.

Maya D., drummer for the Wild Ones, performed during the Girls Rock! DC Camper Showcase in 2013.

For the past seven years, the Girls Rock! DC summer camp has put the tools for making a little rock-and-roll into the hands of girls ages 8 to 18. Modeled after such camps as the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls that started in Portland, Ore., in 2001 and the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls that launched in New York in 2004, Girls Rock! has created both a community of budding young musicians and a tight-knit team of mostly female volunteers whose networks reach deep into the local music scene. (Full disclosure: I have volunteered as an instrument instructor with Girls Rock! in previous summers.)

Camp for these girls is a raucous blur of band practices and instrument lessons, T-shirt making, deciding on band names and learning the fine art of giving your fans an over-the-top show. The girls choose rock instruments they've always wanted to try, whether it's turntables or drums, when they apply. And at week's end, the impromptu bands and DJ crews perform their songs or craft a party-starting DJ set for a gig at one of the city's bigger venues.

But with rock music frequently assumed to be a boys club, the camp's mission is only partially about musical instruction.

"We like to say we're an empowerment camp disguised as a music camp," says Annie Lipsitz, a Girls Rock! DC leadership crew member. "It's really using the tool of music to create this comprehensive safe space and support for girls, who have largely been marginalized, to boost their self-esteem and their self-confidence."

The girls come for a variety of reasons, says Kristin Eliason, another member of the leadership team. "Some come to make friends, or maybe they've never had an opportunity to be around any kind of musical instruments at all," she says. "I think a lot of them just come because it's a week where they can just be themselves and learn more about themselves."

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 27: Campers and counselors sing a final encore during the Camper Showcase of Girls Rock! DC rock camp at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC on July 27, 2013. More than 60 girls participated in the weeklong camp that emphasizes music and self confidence skills. (Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Campers and counselors sung a final encore during last year's showcase.The weeklong camp -- now divided into two sessions to accommodate more girls -- emphasizes music and self confidence. (Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

To broaden its reach, the camp, which costs about $550 for a one-week session, offers financial aid to as many as two-thirds of its campers. Anywhere from a quarter to full tuition can be covered, paid for by year-round fundraising through donors, benefit concerts and other events.

This camp season brought one major change to Girls Rock: Another weeklong session was added to accommodate more girls. Every year since the camp began in 2008, applicants have outnumbered the spaces available (45 to 60 spots). Extending camp means that 90 girls can participate. The first session -- underway this week -- is for girls ages 8 to 12, and the second is for ages 13 to 18.

The change, however, has created a scheduling issue. The camp is run by volunteers, nearly all of them women with professional careers who use vacation days or flex time to participate. So this year, Eliason says, some of the volunteers had to choose one week over another.

It all culminates the next two Saturdays, when the girls perform at the Black Cat and the 9:30 Club. It's a rewarding end to a week of hard work for both the girls and the volunteers.

"It's a pretty big deal," Eliason says. "To have a bunch of kids come together, to work together, to have this creative output and have it be this wonderful experience for them is why they come to camp."

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