I walked into the middle of a neon-colored riot: a mess of pigtails and ponytails, excited chatter, apprehensive faces, fidgeting fingers and exuberant energy.
It was the first-ever Madison edition of Girls Rock Camp, a weeklong day program in which girls ages 8 to 18 form bands, write songs and then perform them in front of a huge, appreciative crowd.
It's an incredible thing to witness, all that transformation and trauma and triumph packed into one week. Most of the girls have never even touched a musical instrument before they come to camp, let alone stood on stage and screamed out lyrics to a song they wrote themselves.
I was a counselor for Girls Rock Camp Madison's inaugural session in the summer of 2010. It met in the empty Good 'n Loud storefront on Atwood Avenue. Not long before, at the Wisconsin Film Festival, I'd watched the documentary Girls Rock!, which chronicles a session of the original Girls Rock Camp in Portland, Ore. The raucous energy and palpable empowerment on display in the film made me proud - and totally jealous that the program didn't exist when I was the lone girl in a sea of boys learning to play drums in grade-school band class.
Here was my chance, though, to give something back and maybe make things better for the next generation. I was excited - and utterly terrified.
Turns out, my state of mind was common among counselors and campers alike at Girls Rock Camp Madison, which this summer meets in two sessions at the Madison Waldorf School. Registration is closed, but the showcase events, July 1 and 22 at the Goodman Community Center's Loft, are open to the public.
This thing was brand new, and we had little idea what to expect. We knew what we wanted to do: Help build the girls' confidence, introduce them to the awesome world of music, and maybe foster some lasting friendships.
In the end, we got all of that and about a million other unforeseen and amazing things. The process was not without bumps, but what worthwhile effort isn't?
I had never taught any kind of class, had only given drum lessons in passing, and had almost zero experience working with kids. The only things I had going for me were my love of music and a firm commitment to never talking down.
Fortunately, I had backup. Fellow lady musicians, many of whom I was already friendly with from the Madison scene, made up the rest of the counselors and instructors - including two of my bandmates from Little Red Wolf. There were women who volunteered as "drama trauma" workers. They had professional experience dealing with the tribulations of girls. There were art instructors. There was even a Punk Rock Aerobics class for much-needed physical expression.
The organizers had run a test camp in Viroqua. They were good about orienting all of us to the tasks at hand.
My band of girls, who after serious deliberation called themselves the Purple Scream, struggled with finding the right fret on their guitars, writing lyrics, keeping a beat and being patient while others worked. At the end of the week, everything came together. The Purple Scream made it happen on stage. It was a whirlwind, and I was so proud.
Girls Rock Camp Madison was founded by Halle Pollay, Scott Meskin and Tony Kille. Kille still helps out, though Meskin has moved on. Kille's wife, musician Beth Kille, is now the other half of the Pollay-Kille powerhouse that runs the show.
"We're basically married now," Pollay says about the amount of time the two spend working together.
Dozens of volunteers and staffers make the whole thing tick. Beth Dohrn, now one of the main organizers, initially came on to run drama trauma. Having never before played an instrument, she went on to attend Ladies Rock Camp, which was set up for women who want the same rock-star opportunities as the girls.
Anna Vogelzang. Julia McConahay. Danielle Brittany. Catherine Capellaro. Lyndsay Evans. Ida Jo. Anna Laube. The list of Girls Rock Camp team members represents a who's-who of women musicians from Madison and beyond.
"The number-one mission of Girls Rock Camp is to promote positive self-esteem, and we do that through music education," says Pollay. Girls today are bombarded with so many images and ideas, she says, and Girls Rock Camp teaches lessons in positivity and strength. "You can really do anything you want. You wanna be a rock star? We can make you a rock star in a week."
Pollay can tell a lot of stories about girls who came to camp shy and quiet, unsure of themselves and where they fit. By the time of the showcase performance, they had found their niche. I've seen this happen. It's an incredible thing to witness.
"We're finding that girls walk more proudly," Pollay says. "They form an identity when they know how to play a guitar, where maybe they were struggling before. I've had several parents tell me, 'You know, my daughter walks around with drumsticks in her back pocket now. She's a drummer. It's cool.'"
Beth Kille says teaching positive self-image is integral to teaching music. A big part of that is helping girls figure out how to work together, to accommodate different ideas, and to work through conflict.
"There are so few examples of women collaborating," Kille notes, with regard to popular culture. "I want these girls to see all these female musicians collaborating, working together, despite all their different backgrounds, different sizes and shapes and colors.
"You don't have to be fighting each other. You can make music and rock out and get along."
The Portland camp was started in 2001, and the concept has spread to dozens of cities all over the world. They operate under the umbrella of the Girls Rock Camp Alliance.
Emmet Moeller is a program director with the Girls Rock Camp Alliance, and for the Willie Mae Rock Camp in New York City. Both Pollay and Kille name Moeller as one of the people instrumental in helping them figure out how to get the Madison camp up and running.
"Camp is important because it is an opportunity for campers and volunteers to re-envision the world in a way that feels exciting and energizing," explains Moeller. "We create a really special space together, and that is a revolutionary and sustaining act."
When Girls Rock Camp Madison isn't holding summer sessions or running Ladies Rock Camp, it's reaching out to the community - and raising money.
"Our fundraising goes toward making sure we have the right gear for camp," Pollay explains. "And we have a financial aid program, because it's really important for us not to turn away anyone for lack of financial resources."
There are always broken strings, drumsticks, drum heads and cymbals to contend with. Madison's music community chips in. The music store Drums n' Moore does drum repair for free, and local guitar wizard Ellie Erickson works on broken electric instruments.
Girls Rock Camp organizers have a good relationship with the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, as well as contacts with school music teachers and parents. They help get the word out to girls who might not otherwise hear about camp.
The money that comes in - weeklong camps cost $400 -benefit the camp and the campers. New and better gear is an ongoing goal. Especially when the wrong gear starts making people sick.
"Julia McConahay, who's allergic to everything, came out of the room with her band on the first day and her eyes were just zombie red," recounts Kille with a laugh. "She said, 'I think there's mold on that PA system,' and I'm like, 'Oh my God, we gotta get you out of that room!'"
Organizers try to make sure instruments are available for everyone who wants to play so that they don't need to provide their own. There's a fleet of drum kits, all deployed at once during individual instrument instruction time. Electric guitars and basses galore, most donated by members of the community, withstand fierce rock 'n' roll attacks.
When girls are assigned to bands, they're grouped according to age, to avoid extra awkwardness. The 8- and 9-year-olds, after all, tend to sing about different topics than the teenagers do. On their applications, campers indicate which instrument they'd like to play. Organizers take pains to make sure everyone ends up where they want to be.
"I field a lot of phone calls after the first day of camp from parents who say, 'My daughter is miserable, she doesn't want to do this,'" says Pollay. "And I'm like, 'Well, what would she like to do?' and I get silence. This is camp. This is supposed to be fun for her. So if she's not happy playing one instrument, then we'll switch her."
This flexible attitude has led to some creative band lineups, including one group that consisted of three lead singers, one drummer and a flute player. Their coach provided guitar backing, and their performance was a complete success.
The instructors stick with the girls through rough spots, and that pays off. Kille says teachers use bumpy times to teach life lessons: "If there's conflict, that's not a bad thing. That's life. And working through it, and then getting up at the end of it, after overcoming whatever crisis occurred, that's the triumph, and that's the growing-up process that we try to help them through."
Many bands formed during camp stay together. It's possible to catch their acts at Mad Rollin' Dolls halftime shows and other community events. Ladies Rock Camp bands, too, have a surprisingly high stay-together rate. Campers return session after session, trying out new instruments and meeting new friends.
Those of us who act as counselors and instrument coaches tend to come back, too. We're all still learning.
Girls Rock Camp Madison showcases
Goodman Community Center Loft, Sunday, July 1 & 22, 4 pm