CEBU CITY – Wearing orange uniforms, they dance and groove in unison to the musical beat, swaying their bodies and acting out parts like professional performers, and drawing applause from the crowd.
The 1,500 inmates of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC) not only entertained spectators and visitors but have also started gaining worldwide popularity through the Internet.
Mastering at least 10 movements, the “dancing inmates” have attracted fans, including those from international media outlets who have seen them perform on the CPDRC quadrangle at the YouTube website.
Their latest dance, “Thriller,” to the beat of a 1980s song popularized by Michael Jackson, has hit a significant mark with more than a million views since the video was posted last week. As of 10 p.m. on July 25, the viewers numbered 1,152,025.
The performance has also been nominated 6,820 times as a favorite and has a rating of 3,708.
Byron Garcia, Cebu provincial consultant on security, posted the video on YouTube on July 18. In the morning of July 20, “Thriller” had already gained 266,000 views. A few hours later, it went up to 400,000.
“It was remarkable. I was really surprised. I uploaded the video on Wednesday during my birthday and when I opened it on Friday, I saw the views reach hundreds of thousands,” Garcia said.
He said he was surprised when his sister, Gov. Gwen Garcia, called up from Ormoc City to tell that she saw CNN reporting about the inmates dancing in the Net. “She thought it was the algorithm or the Sister Act dance,” he said.
Aside from the 1,773 comments as of July 25, Garcia could not help but wonder why many people were amazed, considering that “Thriller” was not a final performance but a routine practice for a number on Aug. 1, the 438th founding anniversary of Cebu province.
The video has been consistently nominated as the most viewed, the top most-rated video, top favorite and several other categories, Garcia said.
He said he had been receiving many e-mails from international news organizations that wanted to interview him on the success of “Thriller.” They included Esquire Magazine’s editorial assistant Corey Sobel, US Today’s Janet Kornblum, ABC’s Kristin Pisarcik of New York City, Brazilian News’ Diego Assis and Russ Heller of Blender magazine.
A film agency, The Collective, which distributed “Fast and Furious,” “Monster Ball,” “Speed” and “Angels” movies, wants to buy “Thriller” should it gain five million views in a month’s time, he said.
“I have e-mailed my response to Ryan Holliday of The Collective and I can’t really divulge what it is. As to the international media, I have been telling them that this is a new program, which I think is the first in the country that has been effective because the prisoners themselves voluntarily participate,” he said, adding: “We don’t use force to convince them to do their routine exercise.”
Garcia said the dance was part of the prisoners’ daily exercise under the jail’s rehabilitation program. The daily exercise starts as early as 6:30 a.m. and lasts until 8 a.m. It is repeated in the afternoon, from 4 to 5.
The program started in April last year when Garcia devised a plan to convince prisoners to attend the daily grind. Since the more conventional exercises were considered boring and dull, Garcia said he thought of introducing a new routine that would be entertaining and therapeutic.
“The prisoners now are so much different. Before, they were not disciplined. But now they have changed. Our programs included not just the routine exercise. Our livelihood programs proved to be very effective and many of the inmates are happy about what we are doing for them,” Garcia said.
The other dances they presented during the monthly celebrations at the facility included “In the Navy,” “YMCA,” “Nanggigigil Kami,” “Dayang-Dayang,” “Sister Act 1 and 2,” and the Algorithm march.
The last number also gained prominence in the YouTube, generating 414,000 views in eight months. Sister Act 1’s “I Will Follow You” had 43,000 views and Sister Act 2’s “Hail Holy Queen” had 45,000, Garcia said.
Vince Rosales, 27, a professional dancer and guitarist, has been the choreographer since last year. He was tapped by Garcia in April 2006.
At first, Rosales said he was reluctant to accept the job because he would not know how to convince the brusque prisoners to dance.
“I was really afraid but at the same time I was really challenged. I think that was the reason I accepted this very unusual job. I was so young at 26 [and]I have to face these people who have been charged with heinous crimes and worse I have to persuade them to dance. It was really nerve-wracking but I made it with Sir Byron’s help,” he said.
Rosales had to quit his dance group, Extreme Shock, and band to shift to a new career.
For the first two weeks in his new job, he had to make very tough adjustments but as the months proceeded, he learned to love the prisoners and they have learned to appreciate the therapeutic effect of dancing, he said.
The CPDRC is a multimillion-peso, highly sophisticated facility located in the mountain barangay of Kalunasan in Cebu City. Its main feature is its expensive security surveillance gadgets.
The Department of the Interior and Local Government in Central Visayas had already announced that it would recommend that the facility be recognized as one of the best-run local government facilities in the region.
The CPDRC also has a unique livelihood program, in which inmates are given a chance to earn by making exotic bags for export to Europe and the United States.
The inmates are self-sufficient. They sew and dye their own uniforms, make their own footwear, and sew linens for the district hospitals.
In order to save what they have earned, they were given passbooks so they can deposit and withdraw money through a local government-run cooperative.
“With our rehabilitation programs, we hope that we can give what is really due the prisoners. We should not condemn them but help them by providing venues to which they could be rehabilitated and be useful individuals once they get out. With the feedback we are receiving, we are more inspired to give more meaningful programs for the inmates,” Garcia said.