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The Dancing Prisoners of Cebu

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From Fillipino Congressman Mong Palatino…

When the Michael Jackson single They don’t care about us was released fourteen years ago, it immediately generated controversy after Jewish groups pointed out that the lyrics of the song (“Jew me, sue me”) has a tinge of racism in it. The pop superstar was forced to apologize by removing the controversial lines in a new recording.

Jackson did two music videos for the song: the first video was shot in location in a Rio de Janeiro community in Brazil to highlight the plight of the poor and the second video was shot in a prison to dramatize the rampant human rights abuses in the U.S. Despite his good intentions, Jackson was accused of exploiting the conditions of the poor for commercial gain.

Fast forward to 2010. Jackson’s long time choreographer arrived in the Philippines to train about 1,500 inmates from the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center on how to perform the dance drill of the controversial 1996 song which was seen by the public in the smash-hit “This is it” concert film. The widely anticipated performance of the Cebu prisoners was uploaded on youtube in time for the DVD release of the film.

It is aptly ironic that the same Jackson song which drew accusations of racism; the same song which have two videos that overexposes poverty and human rights violations, was the chosen song for the Jackson tribute performance of Cebu’s famous dancing prisoners.

Were the prisoners informed that the song was penned by Jackson to make visible the human rights abuses in society? Were they aware of the music video which was shot inside a prison? Did they realize that Jackson’s choreographer taught them the dance moves not in behalf of the Jackson estate but through the sponsorship of a commercial recording label? Was the choreographer conscious of the fact that many of the prisoners in the Philippines are guilty of poverty crimes and most likely his Cebu trainees are also victims of a biased and unfair judicial system?

Filipinos are amused over the global popularity of Cebu’s prisoners but this dancing spectacle deserves to be probed if it really benefits the prisoners.

Do prisoners have the right to refuse if they are chosen to be part of the dancing group? Do they receive compensation? If they stopped dancing, will prison reforms also stop? Jackson fans are impressed with the disciplined dance moves of the prisoners but we should ask if prisoners are punished if they commit mistakes during the practice sessions.

Cebu prisoners gained worldwide fame in 2007 when their rendition of Jackson’s Thriller dance went viral on youtube. Because of their internet exposure, the dancing prisoners quickly became a tourist attraction in Cebu. Like tourists in a safari cruise, foreigners visit the provincial detention center to witness amazing and sometimes hilarious dance moves of the “tamed” prisoners. Maybe tourists will tell their friends that dancing is a good therapy for wild animals, rapists, and murderers.

The dance routine was originally conceptualized by prison officers as a form of behavior conditioning. Then it became a money making event. Dancing prisoners are happy since they claim to enjoy more benefits than other non-dancing prisoners. The incentive to dance is not really to practice art but to receive better prison treatment. Dance to impress visitors to generate funds. Dance to eat more regularly and sleep comfortably. Dance to make the Philippines famous in the global arena. Prisoners are exploited since they have no choice but to obey the instructions of their officers: dance or else. What is doubly painful is that prisoners are enjoying the exploitation.

It is an odd lonely spectacle. Prisoners dancing in front of judicial authorities and the satisfied officials reward the subjects with token reforms and the usually forgotten promise of reviewing their pending cases. Prisoners have to use their bodies if they want to attract the attention of concerned officials. Prisoners have to work harder and please more people if they want some of their basic rights restored. Is prison reform the real desire of the prisoners? What about justice? Freedom?

No one will admit it but Cebu’s dancing prisoners represent many Filipinos who dream of making it big in the global village. What many Filipinos desire is the approving gaze of the colonial masters. Like the Cebu prisoners, they sing and dance and perform many spectacles in the internet to catch the attention of Hollywood, CNN, and other global media icons. They become heroes if they are praised by western critics. Oh yes, the subalterns could sing and dance, and mimic their western idols. This seems to be the new Filipino dream. Surprise the world by acting, singing and speaking in a non-Filipino manner. Prove that the colonial subjects are capable of reproducing what the masters are doing. Say hello to the world. Sing like a white diva and rock star. Serve the master well and maybe the loyal servant will inherit the master’s fabulous wealth in the future.


Mong Palatino is a youth activist and Member of Philippine Parliament representing Kabataan Partylist. He can be found at his blog or via email at mongpalatino@gmail.com.

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