CEBU, Philippines — From the moment teenager Egan Torrecampo and his fellow prisoners step out of their crowded cells, the maximum-security Philippine jailhouse rocks.
Dressed in tangerine jump suits, the roughly 1,500 convicted murderers, rapists and other inmates perform a series of Michael Jackson-inspired dances that have helped boost their morale while also making them Internet sensations.
“When we are dancing we tend to forget why we were here in the first place,” 19-year-old Torrecampo, the flamboyant lead dancer of the jailhouse troupe, told AFP after a recent courtyard performance.
Torrecampo, an openly gay former call centre employee, was sentenced in 2008 to six years in jail for attempted murder after stabbing his 69-year-old American boyfriend.
His enforced move to the jail in Cebu, the Philippines’ second biggest city, earned him a slot in a team that had improbably rocketed to global fame the previous year.
The Internet phenomenon began when footage of the prisoners performing the zombie dance from Jackson’s “Thriller” music video was posted on the video-sharing website YouTube.
It quickly became one of the most watched clips on the Internet and has now registered nearly 40 million hits.
Dozens of different dances from the inmates have since been posted on the web, many of which have also gone viral and been watched by millions.
These include the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.”, the rapper MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This”, Queen’s “Radio Gaga”, and even the Gregorian Chants in the middle of a Catholic mass celebrated on the prison yard.
Their latest brought them heavyweight recognition as Jackson’s choreographer travelled to the jail in January to train them to dance for the King of Pop’s “They Don’t Care About Us” song, which was used to promote his posthumous DVD.
“We are ordinary people. At first we could not believe that we would be visited by an extraordinary person who teaches Hollywood stars to dance,” Torrecampo said of Travis Payne, Jackson’s choreographer.
The “Don’t Care About Us” clip has scored 4.4 million hits on YouTube in less than three months.
A former security consultant at the jail, Byron Garcia, came up with the idea in 2006 of using dance as a way to rehabilitate the prisoners and give them a break from the daily grind of life behind bars.
“Rehabilitation has to be anchored on bringing out the best in men instead of the worst of men,” Garcia wrote on his personal website.
“If we make jails a living hell for these inmates, then we might just be turning out devils once they are released!”
There has been some controversy over allegations that the inmates have been forced into dancing, and that they have become a tourist attraction with visitors paying to watch their performances.
Orange prison-style T-shirts promoting the dancers are for sale at the jail for 170 pesos (3.7 dollars).
The tourist shows were suspended recently as the governor of Cebu province, Gwendolyn Garcia, who is the sister of Byron, apparently sought to quash rumours that her family was profiting from the dancing venture.
“I think you are all aware of the intrigues, the innuendos, the whispers, unfairly or unjustly accusing certain personalities of benefiting from such fame,” she told local reporters last month.
“In order to put a stop to all of this, I issued a memorandum reminding one and all that all activities that have been going on must be cleared with the office of the governor, namely myself.”
Nevertheless, the inmates were brought out for an AFP team on a recent visit, and prison warden Lito Gabuya insisted the dancing was all voluntary.
“They are proud of it,” Gabuya told AFP. “Almost all inmates dance, except those who are sick or elderly.”
For Torrecampo, dancing has given him hope that he may have a meaningful career after he is released.
“I want to become a choreographer — maybe even a film star,” he said.
Watch Philippine inmates dance to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”:
Watch Philippine inmates dance to Michael Jackson’s “The Don’t Care About Us”: