Cebu, Phillipines The Filipino inmates who shot to global fame with a YouTube video of their “Thriller” dance swayed and stomped again Saturday in a behind-bars tribute to their idol, Michael Jackson.
After being told of Jackson’s death Thursday in Los Angeles, the 1,500 inmates at the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center hit the exercise yard, practicing for nine hours Friday night — and into the wee hours of Saturday morning — for the show. They took breaks only to eat or when it rained, said professional choreographer Gwendolyn Lador, hired by the prison to teach the inmates the dance.
“I felt sad because we lost our idol,” said inmate Wenjiel Resane, who plays the role of Jackson’s girlfriend in the video.
Crisanto Nieri, 38, was feeling a little extra stress. He danced Jackson’s part in “Thriller.”
“Even as a kid, he was already my idol,” said Nieri, who is serving seven years on drug charges. “I am happy that our video became famous, but I feel some pressure to perform well.”
A crowd of 700 Cebuanos and foreign tourists watched the performance from a second-floor corridor, swaying to the music and applauding as the inmates, dressed in orange prison T-shirts and sweat pants, stomped and clapped in unison in the hilltop prison, behind thick stone walls topped by electrified razor wire.
Other numbers included “Ben,” “I’ll Be There” and “We Are the World.” The inmates then held up a 5-by-10 foot tarpaulin showing Michael Jackson holding a sword with his name written below it.
Others waved the flags of the Philippines and other nations.
Before the show, the performers dedicated a prayer to Jackson’s family.
“I was sad because one of the songs of Michael Jackson, ‘Thriller,’ made us famous around the world,” said Francis Mercader, 36, who has spent a year in detention while on trial for drug charges.
Byron Garcia, the Cebu provincial security consultant who came up with the idea of adding synchronized dancing to poorly attended exercise sessions, said he was surprised by the popularity of the 2007 video — one of more than a dozen inmate dance numbers he has posted on YouTube.
“Thriller” has attracted 24.3 million hits since it was posted two years ago, with nearly a million of them in the 24 hours since news of Jackson’s death spread.
The inmates “consider Michael Jackson as a god here,” Garcia said. “If not for Michael Jackson, they would not have this international recognition.”
“The fame brought them back their self-esteem,” he told reporters. “So that’s why we have these public performances.”
Inmate Alfredo Gaballo, 52, says Jackson “inspired us, so we are all sad about his death.”