Crisanto Niere and Wenjiel Resane were just two more inmates at the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center, serving time for drug trafficking. Today, they are Internet superstars.
YouTube footage, uploaded in mid-July, shows the prisoners dancing to the Michael Jackson song "Thriller." It has been viewed more than 10 million times and become one of the most popular clips ever on the video-sharing Web site. The skit features Niere, playing Jackson, and Resane, as the "girl," along with more than 1,500 other inmates performing in the background.
This month, the prison authorities tried to take their show, in a manner of speaking, on the road. Byron Garcia, a security consultant for the prison, tried to enter a troupe of 100 inmates in the Sinulog festival this Sunday, a lavish street-dancing festival in honor of the child Jesus and the biggest tourist event in Cebu.
Citing security concerns - 70 percent of the prison's inmates were convicted of serious crimes like murder, rape and narcotics trafficking - Mayor Tomas Osmeña, who oversees the festival, rejected the prison's bid. He told reporters: "Not even if Michael Jackson" - the real one - "joins them."
But inside the prison, the beat goes on.Inmates spend up to four hours a day practicing a growing repertoire of more than two dozen dances. In addition, those who signed up for auditions and made the troupe have continued rehearsing their Sinulog choreography. Although they have been barred from performing at the site of the main festival events, they are planning shows within the prison itself. The prison is giving away 200 free tickets to each of three shows Friday.
The Sinulog would not have been the Cebu prisoners' first public performance. In August, dozens of inmates, including Niere and Resane, were escorted under armed guard to the provincial capitol building for a public holiday celebration. They performed several numbers including "Thriller" for a clearly delighted audience.
"The videos I uploaded were never meant for entertainment," Garcia, the security consultant, said in an interview. "I wanted to inform other jails about what was happening here."
In 2004, as a security consultant to the provincial government (his older sister, Gwendolyn Garcia, is governor), he was brought in to address problems at the prison after a series of riots. He recommended that the almost 2,000 prisoners be moved from an ancient stockade, which had been built with a 200-prisoner capacity in mind by the Spanish, whose colonial rule ended in 1898. The prisoners were transferred to a new, larger facility.
Garcia also fired dozens of jail guards for corruption, installed an enhanced security system, broke up gangs, banned guns and the use of cash (opening bank accounts for inmates) and enforced an exercise regime that in the past year evolved into dance classes.
Garcia said that what had been weekly outbreaks of violence have subsided, inmates' health has improved and recidivism rates are down dramatically.
He only went the YouTube route, he said, because his attempts to draw public attention to these changes were ignored. "A prophet is not without honor except in his own country," said Garcia, citing one of his favorite passages from the Bible.
Since then, Cebu's Internet fame has prompted other Philippine prisons to pay heed. By the end of 2007, eight others had begun adapting some of his methods, including dance. He has yet to visit them, but he says: "Dance is just the icing on the cake."
Life at the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center is no country club. Prisoners sleep on hard pallets more than a dozen to a cell and are held to a strict schedule of work and other activities from dawn to lights-out.
Still, inmates say conditions are better. "It's really nice here compared to the old prison. No more drugs, drinking, look how big our stomachs are," said Rodolfo Ruiz, 47, who has served seven years for multiple murder, jokingly sticking out his belly. He said he had kicked the crystal meth habit he developed at the old facility.
Pepe Diokno, 20, a film student at the University of the Philippines who has toured several prisons while making the documentary "Dancing for Discipline," said the Cebu facility "has the inmates with the biggest smiles."
Dance "gives the inmates something to do, something they can be proud they're part of," Diokno said. "It lets them know that they can be productive, that they aren't useless scum of society. This is rehabilitation already."
In the Cebu prison courtyard, Gwendolyn Lador, a professional choreographer, is shouting into a microphone: "Crawl like spiders! Crawl like spiders!"
The prison brings her in most days to teach inmates. Hundreds of prisoners, in bright orange uniforms, hang on her instructions.
"The situation here is O.K.," Lador said in an interview. "I don't fear them, and they listen. I think it is easier to teach them than other people. You really see how hard they try to get it right."
Later, sitting in his neat cell, one of Lador's Sinulog troupe, Aldren Tolo, 25, in prison for drug dealing, said: "I like dancing. It is a way we get to show the world that even if we ended up in prison, we are not totally damaged people."
Marfury Barberan, 27, a murder convict, is rehearsing John Travolta's role in a "Grease" number the prisoners are preparing for later this year. "Because our families have seen us on TV and the Internet, things are better," he said. "They don't worry about us so much and don't think so much that we have no more hope."
More than two dozen prisoners have tattooed Garcia's name on their bodies alongside those of former gang affiliations and loved ones, openly proclaiming him their "idol." He clearly bristles at suggestions that he forces prisoners to dance. "Do they look like they are forced?" he asked, visibly irritated.
He did say they sometimes receive extra snacks for participating.
The prison's dancing program put it on the shortlist for the 2007 Gawad Galing Pook, a Philippine award for excellence in local governance. Garcia said a private prison operator in the United States has offered him a job, something he is not considering seriously.
"My work here is not yet done," he said. "I am not finished."
Not if he is to keep abreast of the competition he has inspired.
In December, 425 inmates at the Pagbilao jail in Quezon Province received a $500 prize from a national TV station for best video interpretation of the "Papaya Dance," the Philippines' current pop craze.
And here some of their dances..
These are from my personal favorites...so...let's dance! xD