When Zaryn Kluytman started high school four years ago, she trained herself to be a “hallway ninja,” narrowing her shoulders, crouching and dodging the jostling backpacks and strong shoulders of her peers. She did her best to take up no space at all.
When Kluytman returned for her second year, something had changed. She looked around and, for the first time, saw that the halls were full of ninjas just like her. This time, she decided she would stand up straight and walk with purpose. Despite being nearly knocked to the ground between every class, Kluytman decided to take up as much space as she was meant to fill.
Kluytman, now 18, attended the flagship Girls Rock Camp (GRC) in St. Petersburg during the summer between those years. There, Kluytman said she learned what it meant to take up space, not just in the hallways, but also by sharing her thoughts and passions without fear of judgement. Though she is too old to return as a camper this July, the lessons learned at GRC and the impact of the staff inspired Kluytman to return as a counselor.
“I don’t think you will find another camp anywhere that so beautifully defines the difference between caring about other people and caring about what other people think about you,” Kluytman told CL.
The camp itself is structured around learning and performing original music. On the first day of GRC, each camper is assigned to an instrument that they have likely never tried before and then grouped into bands with campers they are meeting for the first time.
Throughout the week, the new bands not only learn how to play instruments, but work collaboratively to write an original song. The Saturday after the last day of camp, hundreds of family members, friends, local musicians and supporters from the community pack into Jannus Landing where each band performs its original song (this year’s showcase concert is on July 20, but the VFW Post 39 is hosting a GRC benefit show on July 13).
Some of these performances have included groups of 8-year-old girls performing a screamo song about how “daydreaming makes your teacher mad.” Others have been teens singing heartfelt ballads about their struggles with mental illness, GRC co-director Jesse Miller said.
Miller and her directing counterpart Rachael Sibilia led the charge to bring a branch of this international alliance of head-banging and female empowerment to St. Pete four years ago. That first year, St. Pete’s Girls Rock Camp attracted 20 campers aged 8 to 17. The next year that number doubled and has grown progressively since.
In the future, Miller said that she hopes to expand the Girls Rock program beyond a five-day summer camp by launching an after-school program.
At GRC, music comes second only to building community and confidence among young girls. Miller explained that a strict “no throwing shade” policy helps set the tone by deconstructing negative stereotypes about young girls and replacing them with pride, mutual support and respect.
“A lot of women my age now, we all talk about how this was the camp that we needed,” Miller said about the importance of the camp. “There is that age that starts to happen where girls start to turn against each other, and (we teach) how to actually communicate with each other… but also politically, with what’s been happening in the world I think that there is a definite need for women to feel ownership of their bodies and to feel powerful in their own voice and to find a collective energy.”
In addition to music, this camp is scored by its dedication to educating and empowering the next generation of young women through classes based on the camp’s five pillars: “herstory,” social justice, self-defense, body image, environmental sustainability.
The all-female identifying staff work together with the campers to come up with ground rules for the week that range from basic tenants like “respect the space,” to a ban on the word “sorry.”
“Girls rock camp solves, over the course of a few days, what is probably one of the biggest issues for women in society today which is safety, and I don’t just mean physically but emotionally and in terms of the judgment of our decisions,” Kluytman said. “After five days of this kind of constant support, approval and positivity, you understand that you never really needed it in the first place.”
Alicia Simon, 15, will be returning as a camper this summer just before entering her first year of high school, but during her first year, she said she feared that camp would be just like the cattiness she had seen among her middle-school peers.
“When I went into GRC, I expected the girls to have their cliques… but that was not what happened,” Simon said. “Everyone was really open to meeting new people, everybody was so nice and non-judgmental. It just really opened my eyes to be that way when I’m at school and in the real world because everyone needs a friend.”
Signups for GRC 2019 are closed, but more information is available at girlsrockstpete.org.
Girls Rock Camp Benefit w/Reality Asylum/Wet Nurse/Laser Mouth/Thorn/Piss Test. Sat. July 13, 6 p.m. $12. VFW Post 39, 2599 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. INFO.