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.


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