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Girls Rock Philly: Girl Power Boot Camp.

September 5, 2011

Text by Ashley Hall. Images by Rick Kauffman.

Beth Warshaw-Duncan caught wind of an all-girls rock camp starting in Portland, Oregon a decade ago and she was intrigued.

“It was just something I wished I had,” says the 30-year old who lives in South Philadelphia.

In 2005, she heard about an affiliate of the same camp starting up in New York. So, she went to see what it was all about. She wound up volunteering there over two years for the non-profit organization.

Then Warshaw-Duncan decided to launch her own girls rock camp here in Philadelphia.

“It’s a big town,” she says. “It’s a town that deserves it.”

The first full Girls Rock Philly camp operated in August 2007 and has since made its mark on the Philadelphia music scene and the women within it.

The annual weeklong rock camp invites girls ages 8-17 to come together and empower themselves through music at Girard College. Over seven days, they learn an instrument of their choice, form a band, write original songs, and, finally, perform their art at a live showcase.

But in-between the guitar riffs and drum kits Warshaw-Duncan says there is only one rule: just say yes.

“Ultimately,” she says, “it’s just about saying yes to girls because a lot of people, whether you realize or not, are saying no through assumptions and attitudes.”

The founder recognizes that women have always been a huge part of the music scene but blames the reflections and portrayals of music in the media for the lack of attention talented women receive.

Erica Rubin, 17, Queen Village, a GRP camper who plays five instruments, explains the situation as somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“A lot of people think girls can’t play guitar, or they can’t play anything except for violin and piano,” Erica offers. “I think the reason why they don’t as much, is because people have said those things so they’re too scared.”

Warshaw-Duncan says they discourage these negative voices by encouraging girls to use the golden word (yes) to themselves and others. However, she acknowledges there is still a limit to the rule.

“The most challenging part of the week and camp is learning how to say yes to people without letting them walk all over you,” Warshaw-Duncan says.

In addition to the music training, the campers are taught to voice their opinions, respect others and reach a compromise on their songs, band name and even T-shirt logos.

Erica’s mother, Susan Proulx, 53, says the empowering environment of GRP has been life changing for Erica.

“I think it’s really focused her into her interests,” Proulx says. “It’s gotten her so much more involved in music.”

The program has also influenced Proulx’s life. She is now the parent representative on the GRP board. She’s also known as the resident mom.

“I am always giving people rides home,” Proulx admits. “I am kind of the mother.”

The liberation through music continues as the girls take varying workshops throughout the week. Themes range from the technology behind distortion pedals, to the history of women in music, to a mandatory workshop called: Image and Identity, where girls are encouraged to see images beyond the superficial.

In conjunction with this workshop, the camp strives to promote a strong sense of individual identity. The adults leaders in the program make a conscious effort to compliment personal traits and talents, rather than praising purchased items. They also try to teach that it’s not all about being playing on expensive equipment or hanging out with cool, famous people.

“Trying to be cool implies that you’re not cool,” Warshaw-Duncan says.

The camp week is intense with practice and bonding and character-development, but the reward for the hard work is worth it: a showcase event where campers perform before huge crowds. The event this year was held at the World Café Live with 15 new bands showing off their skills.

On November 12, GRP will hold a party at Johnny Brenda’s celebrating the release of the 2011 camper compilation CD and the showcase DVD.

Warshaw-Duncan says it is hard for her to choose a favorite part of the camp. She finds herself overwhelmed with pride throughout the week – not only in the young rockers but also in the dedicated volunteers.

“Every year we get more and more amazing women who come and volunteer and become part of our network of women,” she says.

But she says her proudest moments come from simply watching everyone play and become a unit.

“There is a point at which I cry every year, like, in a good way,” she says.

Girls Rock Philly started with only 20 girls four years ago. This year, the camp had more than 80 young ladies attending, half of whom attended on some form of financial assistance.

The organization recently moved to a new practice space on Frankford Avenue where they have multiple practice rooms and offices. In February, GRP launched the Ladies Rock Camp, a weekend-long camp for women 19 and older.

“I feel like people seem to know us,” Warshaw-Duncan says. It’s become it’s own entity versus this thing I do, or this thing our friends do. And I feel like that’s really good for us in the quest for sustainability.”

The steady success has the organizers dreaming of running GRP programs full-year round.

Erica says that she loves the message GRP instills, and she offers similar advice to other girls.

“Just do what you love to do,” she says. “If you really are dedicated, you shouldn’t let anyone hold you back. I think if you have the dedication and the passion, you can succeed.”

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