One Choreographer, 1500 Criminal Lives Changed

Cebu Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the Philippines, once considered the most dangerous prison on the island, is now an inspiration to institutions--and dance teachers--around the world.

Overseer Byron Garcia, who had no previous prison management experience, began experimenting with dance as part of the morning exercise routine. Inmates facing life sentences for drug dealing, rape and mass murder now find themselves united in a communal dance experience. And, over 20 million YouTube hits later, the prisoners are globally famous to boot. “Deep within us there is a will to change,” says inmate Leo Suico, who is accused of mass murder. “[Dance is] the biggest thing that changed us, because it occupied our time. We have no time to think of the problems of our case.”

Amidst a sea of orange uniforms, choreographer Gwen Lador, standing less than five feet tall, is the mastermind behind the dance moves. “I didn’t want to do it, because I was scared,” she says. “And then one of [the prisoners] said, ‘Madam, I’ll help you with whatever you need.’ So my fear vanished.”

Lador teaches the 1,500 inmates everyday, sometimes for five hours a day, starting at 6 am. (The challenge, she states, is not teaching them dance, but teaching them musical coordination.) Introducing dance to these men has turned their heads from the numbing power of drugs to the unifying, endorphin-enhancing power of dance. It seems as if all they needed was someone to believe they could do something, and slowly they danced their way into a second chance at life. “They no longer feel like lowly criminals; they feel like celebrity criminals,” Garcia says.

The inmates have learned popular dance combinations like “YMCA,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Sister Act” and “Soulja Boy,” but their most famous, with over 16 million YouTube hits to date, is “Thriller.” Crisanto Niere, the star of the video, says his son used to be ashamed of him, but, “now when he goes to school, he tells everyone the dancer on the internet is his father. It makes me proud that my son is proud of me."

Garcia and Lador shrug their shoulders at the United States prison officials who said that dance couldn’t work in prisons. Not only was it an effective exercise routine, it also unified the men, rehabilitated addictions, lifted animosity and produced friendships. When filming “Thriller,” Michael Jackson probably never imagined what kind of an impact the work could have. It’s truly a modern-day rain dance, with the power to renew and heal, and when the clouds come rolling in, wash away the destruction of lives distorted by aggression.

Check out Byron Garcia’s YouTube page with all of the original Cebu inmate video postings. For more information about how dance changed the lives of these prisoners, view the Journeyman Pictures documentary.


Sponsored by A Wish Come True
Courtesy A Wish Come True

With so much else on your plate, from navigating virtual learning to keeping your studio afloat, it can be tempting to to cut corners or to settle for less in order to check "costumes" off of this season's to-do list. Ultimately, though, finding a costume vendor you trust is paramount to keeping your stress levels low and parent satisfaction high, not to mention helping your students look—and feel—their absolute best. Remember: You are the client, and you deserve exceptional service. And costume companies like A Wish Come True are ready to go above and beyond for their customers, but it's important that you know what to ask for. Here are some tips to make sure you are getting the most out of your costume company.

Keep reading... Show less
Higher Ed
Charles Anderson (center) in his (Re)current Unrest. Photo by Kegan Marling, courtesy of UT Austin

Given the long history of American choreographers who have threaded activism into their work—Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, Donald McKayle, Joanna Haigood, Bill T. Jones, Jo Kreiter, to name a few—it's perhaps surprising that collegiate dance has offered so little in the way of training future generations to do the same.

Until now, that is. Within the last three years, two master's programs have cropped up, each the first of its kind: Ohio University's MA in community dance (new this fall), and the University of Texas at Austin's dance and social justice MFA, which emerged from its existing MFA program in 2018. These two programs join the University of San Francisco's undergraduate performing arts and social justice major, with a concentration in dance, which has been around since 2000.

Keep reading... Show less
Teacher Voices
Getty Images

As many dance teachers begin another semester of virtual teaching, it is time to acknowledge the fact that virtual classes aren't actually accessible to all students.

When schools and studios launched their virtual dance programs at the beginning of the pandemic, many operated under the assumption that all their students would be able to take class online. But in reality, lack of access to technology and Wi-Fi is a major issue for many low-income students across the country, in many cases cutting them off from the classes and resources their peers can enjoy from home.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.