If you've been to prison abroad, chances are you don't consider that experience the highlight of your trip. However, a short stint in Cebu's Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center has emerged as the exception to the rule. Thanks to the dancing inmates of CPDRC, for the first time in history, “go to prison” is working its way onto travel itineraries, making a trip to the Philippines without going to jail something to regret.
If you're not one of the tens of millions of Youtube viewers who has virtually experienced the dancing inmates, the idea of a group of maximum-security inmates being rehabilitated through choreographed dance and achieving world fame along the way may sound more like the premise to a bad 80s movie than an actual Internet phenomenon turned tourist attraction. However, credit CPDRC chief Byron F. Garcia with being the first warden in history to transform his prison yard into a world-infamous performance venue.
In the mid-2000s, Garcia introduced simple dances to the existing prison workout routine to liven up an otherwise monotonous fitness hour. An encouraging increase in good behavior and camaraderie inspired Garcia to get creative. Music, like Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall and the Village People's Y.M.C.A, was added to the routines to provide further motivation. In 2007, 1,500-plus inmates took on their most ambitious challenge to date, Michael Jackson's Thriller. Garcia claims he taped and uploaded the Thriller performance on Youtube, not in search of celebrity, but with hopes of inspiring other prisons to adopt his unorthodox, yet affective program. To Garcia's shock, the clip received six million hits in just three weeks, and later that year, ranked number five on Time magazine's “Top 10 Viral Videos of 2007.” Keeping the clock ticking on the prison's fifteen minutes of fame, performances became opened to the public starting April 2008.
The World-famous Dancing Inmates of Cebu's Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center
Despite the worldwide fame and the fact that performances are limited to the last Saturday of every month, snagging a ticket to the dancing inmates is surprisingly easy and cheap (free!). Your “ticket,” in the form of a lanyard prison visitor pass, can be retrieved at the Cebu Capitol grounds two hours prior to the 3pm performance. There is no need to make a reservation, but be prompt because tickets are distributed on a first-come-first-serve basis. Simply show up, wait in line, write your name, collect your badge, and queue for a short bus ride.
Upon arrival at CPDRC, you'll encounter a security check no more thorough than what you’d experience entering any Filipino shopping mall. Once inside, any tension or misgivings about the venue will evaporate once you encounter your first prisoners, orange jump-suited gentlemen peddling souvenirs and refreshments with a smile. The pre-performance atmosphere has a backstage-pass like feel to it, with eager, game-faced prisoners rushing about the prison yard making last-minute preparations. Put yourself at ease and enjoy the mounting energy as show time approaches.
CPDRC's Dancing Inmates
Despite general admission ticketing, there is no need to scramble for a good seat. The seating is intimate, yet spacious, and during the performance, you're free to (and will want to) wander up, down, and around the perimeter of the prison yard taking photos. The prison yard floor offers optimal, up-close-and-personal viewing, while the second tier is ideal for shooting video. (While on the second tier, keep your camera pointed toward the performance, as the inmates in the cells behind you have actively chosen not to participate in the performance, and their privacy should be respected.)
The performance has experienced a jazzy makeover in the five years since the Thriller upload with the addition of props, wardrobe changes, and most importantly, a small team of front-men donning black shirts whose smooth moves have earned them a promotion from the orange-jumpsuited chorus into the limelight. Keep a close eye on the moves busted in the most symbolically charged number of the day, Michael Jackson's They Don't Even Care About Us, as Jackson's choreographer, Travis Payne, personally visited CPDRC to choreograph the dance.
The performance, emceed by the lovably corny Garcia, starts roughly at 3pm and lasts for two hours with one brief intermission. The program lasts about 15 dances (maybe a few too many), each set to one of the last half-century's mega-hit pop tunes. For the last number, accept Garcia's invitation to approach the prison yard floor for a prisoner-led dance lesson. After your lesson, strike a few poses with your favorite jailhouse rockers and queue for the bus. Zero pesos down and hundreds of photos up, expect to be back at the Capitol grounds around 6:30pm.
The Dancing Inmates don colourful wigs for one routine
While there will be no shortage of smiles in the crowd, many critics believe what's being done at CPDRC is no laughing matter. Some question the real-world benefits of choreographed dance. “Of course it's unique, but the point is being missed,” says former University of Manila psychology professor Miguel Cortez. “Each hour [the inmates] spend practicing dance is an hour that could be spent acquiring a useful technical skill or learning a societal value applicable in the real-world.” While people like Cortez believe that prisoner needs are being ignored, others are disappointed that any attention is being paid to them at all. “Busing in tourists to see [the dancing inmates] rewards them for the actions that led to their incarceration” says long-time Cebu resident, Mariana Reyes. “Treating criminals like celebrities is disrespectful to the victims of their crimes.” Overall, however, visitor opinions take a more lighthearted tone. “I had goosebumps throughout the whole show,” says Australian tourist Jennifer Parish. “That was one of the most inspiring shows I have ever seen.”
Controversy aside, a visit to CPDRC to see the dancing inmates is an undeniably unique travel experience that deserves a spot on any South East Asian bucket list. For best results, check your judgments at the door and allow yourself to appreciate a performance by the only world-famous cast that no one is aspiring to join.
Words by Matt Alesevich & Photos by Peter Cozad