Dancing to Michael Jackson's Thriller, the inmates of Cebu prison were made famous worldwide. Then their choreo-grapher and prison governor Byron Garcia resigned, and took his favourite twelve dancers from the prison on tour. These are The Ambassadors of Goodwill.
'You saw the monster hit with 43 million views on YouTube, now please welcome, once again, the Cebu dancing inmates, now free, here with their tribute to Michael Jackson on the first anniversary of his death – please welcome – the Thriller!'
Byron Garcia, broad gold bracelets on both of his arms, lowers the mic and leaves the stage as twelve dancers pose before a modest crowd in an echoey town hall. These are the Ambassadors of Goodwill, and their strange story is Garcia's story, too.
When a video of 1,500 prisoners dancing to Michael Jackson's Thriller appeared in 2007, it was the first internet viral video to make front-page headlines around the world. It swiftly passed into pop culture, and soon Cebu prison was producing dance videos every month, putting on public performances and generating huge publicity for its governor, Byron Garcia.
But in February 2010, after almost three years of success, the Governor of Cebu Province (and Byron's sister) Gwendolyn Garcia suspended dancing at the prison. A one million peso donation made to the inmates by Michael Jackson's choreo-grapher had, she alleged, never made it to the prisoners. Under investigation, Byron Garcia, in his own words, was 'booted out'.
Unwilling to abandon the project but no longer the governor of a jail, on March 26, 2010 Garcia signed an agreement with the Philippines Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, engineering the release of twelve of his most talented dancing inmates to tour as a dance troupe – The Ambassadors of Goodwill.
Garcia vigorously denies his sister's allegations: 'She's a girl and she wants all the attention. Do you know the story of Joseph the Dreamer? From the Bible? His story is quite similar to my own story. We were booted out because of jealousy.'
You can't treat them like elephants and lions in a circus – even lions and elephants get mad at their masters.
Byron Garcia, Cebu, Philippines
Garcia's particular dream has delighted many, and worried some. It began when a feud between prison gangs threatened to erupt into a riot. Urged to send in the emergency team with tear gas and batons, Garcia decided to play Another One Bites The Dust by Queen over the PA system.
'I watched the CCTV monitors, and a lot of people were anxious or frightened, but then they started to dance, all down the corridor. Soon everyone was dancing in the courtyard. They all joined the disco, all laughing, and I said to myself: “I'm onto something. I am going to use dance.”'
Human rights groups have claimed that inmates in Cebu prison were forced to dance under Garcia, though he denies this. Publicly, his replacement at Cebu prison says that the dances have now been made optional, and that fifty percent of the prisoners no longer take part. Garcia says this fifty percent do not dance 'out of respect for me. They sympathised with my being booted out.' And the other half? 'They are forcing inmates to dance', says Garcia, 'by physical means... [but] you can't just make them dance, and treat them like elephants and lions in a circus... Dancing is about change – it's about my philosophy on jails.'
The twelve Ambassadors are the proof of that philosophy, and Garcia negotiated their release for a variety of crimes. 'Only one or two were in for minor offences, two of three were in for murder, and the rest were in for drugs.' One of the murderers in the dance troupe is Giovannie Nemenzo. Unconfirmed reports say that the families of his victims received a 25,000 peso settlement for his release.
Most of the Ambassadors live rent-free in a two-floor boarding house owned by Garcia, with one downstairs room and two tiny upstairs rooms, based three minutes walk from their rehearsal space. If they rehearse six days a week, and keep a log, they can make 2,400 pesos a month, or two US dollars a day – enough for a burger meal. In the house, the Ambassadors are cramped but cheerful. They practice dancing in the down-stairs room. In the upstairs room, Wenjeel, who plays the girl in the original prison Thriller video, lies back, resting on a fellow Ambassador, singing Close to You by The Carpenters.
'The majority of my videos have a message', says Garcia. 'When I made the YouTube Thriller, my message was that in Michael Jackson's video the people were in costumes. But here, these are the real evil people, and they want to let loose of "the Thriller" inside of them. Each and every one of us should break away from sin.'