Dancing Prisoners: Why it isn’t funny anymore

By Carlo Osi

Posted at Sep 22 2008 10:44 AM | Updated as of Sep 22 2008 07:16 PM

PHILADELPHIA – The Dancing Prisoners, if you will recall, was the Internet sensation in 2007 when prisoners from Cebu danced their way to international stardom by moving to the groove of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. Convicted rapists, drug pushers, murderers and what-have-you banded together to create a funny work of art. Ingenious and novel, the Dancing Prisoners caught the world’s attention.

After Thriller, they moved to other easily identifiable tunes such as that of Soul Ja Boy and Bonnie Tyler’s 80s hit “I Need a Hero”. In the months that followed, more songs were danced to, flooding its home base YouTube with innumerable shots of orange-clad criminals dancing almost in sync. The very latest one was Macarena by the band Los Del Rio, a song celebrating its 15th year (with Los Del Rio endorsing in Spanish the use by the prisoners of their newly-remixed version).

For whatever reason, it seems like the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center where these prisoners are dancing have made it an institutional policy to come up with a video every month. Someone has got to tell them the idea is already stale, the videos are not funny anymore, and the erstwhile phenomenon has turned into a bad joke instead of an entertaining one.

Embarrassing, really

A few months ago, Anderson Cooper of CNN broadcast a Dancing Prisoners episode as found on YouTube. The entire CNN segment took perhaps 4 to 5 minutes of the show. Now let’s get to the point: the first video featuring “Thriller” was funny and exhilarating. The next few may still have its magic touch. But the more recent videos looked very scripted, forced, and embarrassing.

Admittedly, the Dancing Prisoners’ “Thriller” YouTube video last year was extremely unique and successful – notching up 14 million hits – a large number especially for a video-inspired, reality TV-based world. Where on earth but the Philippines can you see prisoners dancing to the 1983 monster hit of Michael Jackson. Easy to embrace happiness, Filipinos had fun the world over.

But like a boxer who doesn’t know when to properly hang his gloves or an 80-year old company CEO who doesn’t want to retire, the Cebu detention center and its officers don’t seem to know when enough of the dancing videos is enough.

Maybe it hasn’t crossed their minds what other nations and other peoples think of these Dancing Prisoners or of the Philippines in particular. Not that the prisoners and these videos are re-writing our history, but it’s not in our best interest to be known as the Land of the Dancing Prisoners. If there are also too many videos of the same prisoners dancing, the novelty is lost, boredom sets in, and any message is expunged.

Prisoner’s dilemma

In the context of the Dancing Prisoners, they themselves have their own Prisoner’s Dilemma.

When you look at the 20 or so main dancers, you will see a lot of happy faces who are just so willing to dance to the current vibe. But from the outlying areas, it appears that there are hundreds more who are just merely swaying and doing very simple dance moves and which the cameras very seldom train on. What’s on their minds?

An interview by the Associated Press in August 2007 reveals that for some prisoners, the dancing exercise is a relief from the daily rigors of the imprisoned life.  It gives them something to do, compels them to exercise, allows them to freely socialize, and minimizes violence among fellow inmates. 

Some say it serves as a good rehabilitation for them peculiarly because they are in a detention and rehabilitation facility. For others, being famous is a good thing. Certainly they realize that they are still in prison, either serving a few years or awaiting trial for murder charges, drug offenses and similar crimes. As criminal trials in the Philippines take a very long time to conclude (e.g. change of lawyers mid-way, delay in prosecution, or serial postponements of trial dates by judges), some say it’s a relief.

But the uniqueness of the phenomenon is waning and fast wearing out.  It may be overextending the innovative nature of the first few videos. Other nations may be confused as to what we do to our prisoners. Is dancing a reward, a punishment, a coerced act, or a treat? The issue of human rights can also be called into play. 

Moreover, isn’t the Cebu detention center profiting from all of these dance routines? Sure, the prisoners may be getting a small part of the business income from these dances, but the detention center allegedly gets the bigger share. It may in the long run  discourage the national government from increasing the budget allocated for improvement of prison conditions because they can just get their prisoners to dance and solicit fees in the process.

The prisoners can’t complain: they would likely fear reprisals particularly because the venture has morphed from a simple exercise routine into an income-generating scheme.  The prison officials would want them to dance as frequently as possible allegedly because the sympathetic “returns” are great.  It might not be far-fetched that there would be nighttime performances for eager Cebu tourists who will pay to see former street gladiators and thugs strut their stuff.

National image

It’s common knowledge that 10% of Filipinos lives outside the archipelago. It’s good to know that those who live in or have migrated to the United States are highly educated individuals such as nurses, doctors, engineers, and accountants.  Hence, if office workers, colleagues, church friends or classmates joke about this, Filipinos in the U.S. can laugh it off and dismiss it as orchestrated by a bored prison consultant and choreographed by a very creative prisoner.

Come to think of it, I deeply wonder what my colleagues at the Philadelphia law firm I work for think about this whole Dancing Prisoners phenomenon. Internet-savvy as they are, I’m pretty quite sure they have encountered this. I haven’t been formally asked about it, but I would certainly use the excuse stated above if grilled on it.

But explaining away the Dancing Prisoners is harder than many people may think. It might be hard to explain it to inquisitive bosses. If a person in the U.S. is applying for a job, the human resources department typically searches Internet sources such as blogs, Facebook, MySpace and others for information and compromising pictures or ideas that may adversely affect chances of employment. If a Filipino OFW is applying for work, the Dancing Prisoners videos may be a topic of conversation during the interview.

This is not to say that a nurse or a doctor wanting to work in the U.S. will be quizzed by the interviewers about these videos. Neither will it necessarily lead to a rejection letter and thus lose potential employment. To think that way is overstretching this argument. But the fact that the Dancing Prisoners videos are there on YouTube and that it’s alleged to already be a monthly commercial venture is something to think about.

In fact, it’s hard to explain it even among professionals and graduate students whether in the Philippines or outside. Fil-American school kids might be teased about it. Other nationalities may think jail officials are abusing Filipino prisoners simply because they have “lesser rights” or can effortlessly be compelled to do things they will not do on their own. It’s hard to imagine something like this occurring in the U.S. with its strong advocacy for prisoners’ rights.

Famous for the wrong reason

One of the more recent videos was the 80s hit song “I Need a Hero” with the inmates holding portraits of heroic icons such as the Gandhi, Dalai Lama, and Pope John Paul II.  It was meant to be a tribute to all of the individuals who have served as heroes for various peoples.  Don’t get me wrong but I think there’s just something cheesy and awkward about this.  

Certainly it made them famous, but there’s no reason making the Philippines famous for Dancing Prisoners. Given the country’s intellectual, human and physical resources, it can do better than that.  It’s humorous for a time but the country also risks misinterpretation.

While other Southeast Asian nations such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand are consistently promoting themselves as superior tourist attractions and great investment opportunities, and with China and Japan remaining to be the leaders in the Asian region, the Philippines is again, reputation-wise, being left behind.

The fact that it’s embarrassing can be phrased this way: Will the Cebu provincial government organize its capitol staff members to dance in a coordinated way and show it through YouTube?  Or will Cebu mayors and other politicians take the time to dance like the prisoners and similarly use YouTube as a broadcast platform?  The answer is simply No. They won’t do it because it’s humiliating and likely to create a negative image.

Sooner or later, the world might conveniently forget that the Philippines was the originator of the bloodless and peaceful people-powered revolution in 1986 which overthrew an overstaying dictator and just remember our economically struggling country as the Home of the Dancing Prisoners. What a real shame if and when that happens.

The author is a US/Japan-trained and educated Filipino lawyer.  Send comments to carlo.osi@gmail.com or through https://eastofturtleisland.blogspot.com/.