[Part1]Font of self-confidence in Philippine prison, way of life in Senegal

What moves us to dance? Because it is a healthy activity, or because of a desire to perform in front of others? Or perhaps, simply because of an impulse to shake our hips and gyrate our bodies to the beat? If it feels good, why not? The whole world is caught up in dance fever. These days, on TV, in schools and even on the Internet, dance is all around us.

“Dancing Inmates.”/photo:Shinya Wake

Harsh sunlight glares down on a sports field surrounded on all four sides by a wire fence. The temperature is higher than 30 degrees. About 900 men stand in line, wiping the sweat from their brows.

This is the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center, a maximum security prison on the Philippine island of Cebu, and home to a group of convicts who have become an Internet sensation known as the “Dancing Inmates.”

It is located a 20-minute drive from the inner city at the end of a mountainside trail. Here there is no trace of Cebu's beautiful seaside and beach resort atmosphere.

The bleachers around the sports field in the prison are filled with tourists who have come to see the CPDRC inmates' dancing, which is presented for public viewing once a month.

First up: Michael Jackson's “Billie Jean,” followed by South Korean rapper Psy's “Gangnam Style.” In time with the fast-tempo music, prisoners clad in orange uniforms form lines and disperse. They shake their heads and arms and gyrate their hips as they perform their steps.

photo:Shinya Wake

After the performance, tourists make their way down from the stands to the sports field and take photos with the inmates, who willingly smile and pose. It is hard to believe that these are prisoners doing time for serious crimes such as murder and rape.

In the middle of the group of inmates are 30 men wearing black T-shirts, which indicate their status as top dancers. Macario Cambarijan, 29, is one of them. He stands out among the others due to his powerful and sharp movements.

Cambarijan was imprisoned here 11 years ago when he was 18. He was convicted of murder.

Cambarijan says prison life used to be boring. He got up in the morning, went jogging, ate breakfast, then lay around doing nothing. After lunch, there was hardly anything to do--basketball was about the only way to pass the time. Once dinner was over, it was time to go to sleep again. It was the same routine day after day.

That is, until eight years ago when everything changed. As part of an inmate rehabilitation program, dance was introduced as an activity. Cambarijan had always loved dancing, and even once took part in a dance contest. Practice in the prison was held three days a week for two hours at a time, but prisoners were free to rehearse on their own in their spare time.

"I feel happy while dancing," Cambarijan says. "And for the tourists coming to watch us, I am very proud."

The decision to bring dance into the prison in 2005 was made by the warden. Fighting between inmates was a problem, and finding a solution had proven difficult. Singing and playing musical instruments were considered, but dance was chosen because it was healthy, cost little, and a large number of prisoners could participate at the same time. It is said that the warden was convinced that the inmates would all take part when he saw them goofing off and dancing during cleaning duty.

Cebu Province worker Vince Rosales, 33, was involved in the introduction of dance to the prison from the early stages.

"At first it was really hard," he recalls, citing that the gap between rich and poor in the Philippines is vast. "These inmates here, they are not really well educated. Perhaps 80 percent are not. So some of them don’t even know which is right and which is left. You can imagine how hard it is to train people like that."

However, things began to change. Men who had never spoken to one another started eating meals together, and came to speak of the importance of having rules. Fighting decreased as well.

"Through dance, they learned how to get along with others, to respect others," Rosales says. "It was like a common language for them."

Although participation is not compulsory, close to 60 percent of the 1,600 inmates take part. They have even been featured on "Algorhythm Koshin," part of the NHK educational TV show. Prisoners like Cambarijan who are particularly good at dancing sometimes provide instruction to the other participants.

"The behaviors of the people around me changed," Cambarijan says with a smile. "I feel more respected, and now I feel very at home."

photo:Shinya Wake

In July 2007, their performance of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" was posted by the warden on the video website YouTube. It was a major turning point for the inmates.

The video first drew the attention of the U.S. and British media, and then the world. The video has been viewed more than 52.6 million times. Today, several thousand tourists visit the prison annually. The inmates have also come to be viewed differently by the local Cebu islanders.

"What changed the most? Well, their families started to come here to see them," Rosales says.

The initial purpose of introducing dance as an activity may have been to reduce fighting between prisoners, but it has also brought them unexpected benefits.

"Dancing reconnected them to society," says Analyn Ubas, a teacher of criminal policy at Cebu's University of the Visayas. "I’m sure it will help their rehabilitation."

Unfortunately, Ubas says, many ex-inmates still end up back in prison.


The dance is a prelude to a laamb tournament, a style of wrestling/photo:Yusaku Miyazaki

Drums pound like machine guns at a sports stadium in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, in western Africa. Men weighing close to 100 kilograms perform nimble steps and swing their arms as they dance. In the stands, children, students, elderly people and invited politicians join in and sway to the rhythm.

The dance is a prelude to a laamb tournament, a style of wrestling. But the scene rather resembles a massive outdoor dance event. After soccer, laamb is Senegal's most popular national sport. Wrestlers and spectators dance for nearly three hours before the actual grappling begins. As was once the case with sumo in Japan, wrestling in Senegal is a holy ritual performed to pray for abundant crops in rural villages. As drummer Ousmane explains, "Being a good dancer is a requirement for becoming a wrestler."

The spectators continue to dance during the bouts and even after the wrestling is over, ceasing only after the sun goes down.

Wrestling tournaments are not the only places in Senegal where dancing is found. It is a part of life in every town and city. When walking through the streets at night, it is not unusual to come across groups of people dancing to celebrate weddings and baptisms. There are even dances connected to food, and for quelling quarrels between married couples.

On a Saturday in April, there was an event where people danced on the streets of a residential neighborhood from the night until dawn, and despite the time being past midnight, children and women went on dancing to the beating drums.

Pamoussa/photo:Yusaku Miyazaki

Around 1 a.m., they were joined by Pape Moussa Sonko, the 29-year-old star of the National Ballet of Senegal who is also known by his nickname "Pamoussa." Pamoussa leaped into the air, whirling his long arms like propellers. His limbs moved so fast that they gave the illusion he was floating on air. Such new moves by him are always featured on national TV, and quickly catch on with the people of Senegal as a new trend.

"For the people of Senegal, dance is life itself," says Youssou N'dour, a musician who created a new genre of dance with a blend of Western music and Senegalese rhythmic percussion, and now serves as the nation's minister of Tourism and Culture. "It is the source of our vitality."

On the Internet and in the music industry in the United States and elsewhere, the dynamic and acrobatic movements of hip-hop dance have taken the world by storm. Some believe that its roots lie in Senegal and other western African countries. Usa, a member of Japanese dance-pop group Exile, has visited Senegal to seek the source of hip-hop. Amazed by Pamoussa's performances, he wrote the following in his book "Dance Earth":

"It overwhelms all who witness it with the powerful life force of the African continent. ... This is unmistakably the greatest style of dance in the world."

(This article was written by GLOBE staff writers Shinya Wake and Yusaku Miyazaki.)

The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE

Translated by The Asahi Shimbun AJW. More related stories available at

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