A rock and roll retreat, just for girls

Olivia Vang
Olivia Vang, 10, from Brooklyn Park, plays guitar. She says she likes playing music with girls because they don't try to dominate everything like some boys might do. Girls Rock camp tries to foster an environment where girls are free to express themselves musically in a judgment-free environment.
MPR Photo/Jessica Mador

Being a rock star is every kid's dream, isn't it? The dream is real for several dozen kids this summer, thanks to Minnesota's first rock and roll camp -- for girls only.

In a soundproof basement studio at the Perpich Center for Arts Education in Golden Valley, a band called Hot Kool-Aid is rehearsing its latest song.

"You may think I'm an ordinary girl/ Step outside, all you hear/ look at me all you see is dramatastic/ smile at me my heart feels warm inside."

The five girls who make up Hot Kool-Aid are between 10 and 12 years old. They come from across the Twin Cities metro area and Wisconsin each day for the week-long Girls Rock 'N Roll Retreat camp.

The floor of the small recording studio is a bright jumble of clothing, ponytail holders, guitar picks, homemade concert posters and buttons. If it weren't for the amps, guitars, drums and other gear, it could be mistaken for for a sleepover. But it's serious business.

With the help of a professional adult female musician and a junior counselor, the girls -- Billie Forester, Olivia Vang, Minika Warden, Kaemella Foster and Freyja Vanderpaardt -- are learning all the fundamentals of rockin' out.

"In 40 hours, basically, they learn an instrument, they get put in a band, they write a song and they put on a concert," said camp founder Jenny Case, who is also a well-known Twin Cities musician.

Rock practice
A band of girls practices at the Golden Valley-based Girls Rock N' Roll Retreat summer camp. The progam gives girls ages 9-17 a no-boys allowed space where they can learn to write and play music. The program includes workshops aimed at helping girls understand and overcome stereotypes of women in the music industry and society, learn to speak up and gain self-confidence.
MPR Photo/Jessica Mador

Case says it's a crash course in rock 'n roll for about 70 campers over two weeks each summer. This is the camp's fourth season.

Some campers -- who range in age from 9 to 17 -- come with previous musical experience, some have never even touched an instrument. Most are really shy at first and afraid to speak up.

Case says all that quickly changes.

"By Friday, their band rules and they're just putting on a great concert," she said.

The camp has no strict rules about costumes or content. The girls can write about pretty much whatever they want.

But Case says there is one important rule.

Erica Krumm, Kaemella Foster
Professional musician and guitar instructor Erica Krumm, left, helps Minneapolis camper Kaemella Foster, 11, rehearse a song she wrote with her bandmates.
MPR Photo/Jessica Mador

"We are not allowed to apologize for making mistakes or not being good enough, which girls often do. Instead, they have to say, 'I rock!'" said Case. "So if you hear someone else apologizing for playing the wrong chord, or they are not picking something up quickly and they say sorry, you have to say, 'no - you rock!'"

That empowering message is clearly getting across to the members of Hot Kool-Aid. The girls say their band rocks at least as hard as any boy band.

Billie Forester says they're more productive in an all-girls rock camp than they would be with boys around to distract them.

"[Boys] have it in their minds that they are tougher and better than girls are, so I guess putting them in a rock band camp with girls might make them think that they are in charge," said Forester. "If they were put in the same band as the girls, they might think that they are in charge of the band or something."

Camp founders hope that separating the girls from boys will empowers girls at a critical time in their development.

Hot Kool-Aid
These girls, from all over the Twin Cities metro area and Wisconsin, formed the band Hot Kool-Aid at Girls Rock N' Roll Retreat summer camp. They will perform three songs they wrote the lyrics and music for at a concert Friday.
MPR Photo/Jessica Mador

Widespread research shows that girls' self-esteem often plummets in the preteen years. That's because, experts say, negative media and peer messages can push girls to link their self worth to their sex appeal.

And this can cause them to dumb themselves down, become passive, self-conscious, image-obsessed, and depressed -- and act out. Studies show girls are more likely than boys to attempt suicide, experience substance abuse and have eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.

Jenny Case got so tired of seeing girls become shrinking violets at co-ed rock camps that she teamed up with other female rockers to establish the first one for girls in 2006.

So far, the camp has made rock stars out of hundreds of girls, and organizers hope to expand.

During a break, all of the members of Hot Kool-Aid raise their hands when asked if they plan to keep playing music, and the general consensus is that they are all "pretty awesome. We rock!"

The camp ends Friday with two live performances. Organizers hope the confidence the girls have gained onstage will also help them stand up for themselves for the rest of their lives.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.