The World-famous Dancing Inmates of Cebu’s Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation CenterDespite 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 InmatesDespite 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 routineWhile 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
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