The Story of the Dancing Inmates

1,500 prison inmates dancing in absolute harmony to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’. The video filmed at Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC) in the Philippines has become an internet sensation with more than 50 million views on Youtube. What makes the video so popular? In the original music video to ‘Thriller’ – a classic artifact of visual culture in its own right – Michael Jackson establishes a distinct visual reference to the genre of zombie movies explored via the dancers’ movements, the set design and the costumes. As opposed to that, the zombie in the prison dance is not signified by an artificially created environment, but rather, the zombie is signified by the prisoners themselves. The song choice of ‘Thriller’, and the iconic zombie dance associated with it, appears to be crucial for the popularity the prison dance performed at CPDRC. The ‘dancing inmates’ periodically become the metaphorical zombie in reference to the actual crime that they presumably committed.

There is another important element in the prison dance that is less visible at first sight. The prison dance is the brainchild of the prison’s governor Byron Garcia who introduced it to the inmates as a means to establish order and harmony within an otherwise chaotic environment. On his website, Garcia points out that the prison dance is part of a rehabilition program as he says: ‘rehabilitation has to be anchored on compassion so that a sinner can be separated from the sin, so the degenerate from the culture and humanity be regenerated into the humane’. Preceding Garcia’s arrival, CPDRC was a notoriously brutal prison culminating in an incident in late 2004 in which inmates serving time for a minor crime were taken hostage by other prisoners’ on strike demanding better treatment. A photograph by Sunstar photographer Alex Badayos shows the hostages desperate cry for help scribbled on cardboards.

As the minor offenders were rescued by the army and the police, a photograph of the mass arrest of the other inmates symbolizes the order the state apparatus sought to instill within the chaotic and unstructured confines of the prison. The colourful clothing of the inmates lying face-down on the floor stands in complete contrast to the uniformly orange overall worn by the inmates in the prison dance. Put in shackles, inmates were then transfered to a new prison facility which would become the backdrop for the prison dance video. According to Garcia, this transfer of prisoners was one of the largest transfers of its kind ever to be conducted in the Philippines.

A new set of images, all featured on Byron Garcia’s website, depicts a complete reversal of the prisoners’ lifestyle under the new regime. Undoubtedly, it is an image that Garcia is keen to foster as he depicts himself as heroic intervener. It would be too easy however to dismiss Garcia’s efforts as a publicity stunt. The introduction of shoes (even though they were missing laces) appears to mark a significant moment in the inmates’ lives. Importantly, and maybe this constitutes a wider master plan for the running of CPDRC, the shoes would of course feauture again in the prison dance to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’.

The story of the ‘dancing inmates’ took a bizarre twist when Sony Music recognized that the sheer popularity of the Youtube clip could result in a dramatic increase of sales for Michael Jackson’s back catalogue. A strategy to benefit from Michael Jackson’s vast music catalogue appeared particularly pertinent after his death in June 2009. Sony Music unsuccessfully fought for the removal of the clip and, conceding to it’s huge popularity, filmed their own version of Jackson’s ‘This is it’ at CPDRC later that year. The video, much better in quality than Garcia’s original, depicts a rather perverse effort to financially benefit from a group of prisoners who are otherwise faceless, voiceless and forgotten. Further inscribing the prisoner’s lack of identity, Sony Music decided to replace the prominent front row with Michael Jackson’s long-time choreographer Travis Payne and two of his dancers. The long arm of commerce would reach, through a bizarre twist of fate, the ‘dancing inmates’ of Cebu.

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