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How Synchronized Dancing Alleviates Existential Claustrophobia in Cyber Cities, Arab Households, Filipino Prisons and North Korea

If you have the hunch-swivel zombie slide from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” memorized in all its horror-spoof glory, you were probably either 13 years old in 1983 or currently doing time in a Filipino prison.

Last July, approximately 500 smooth criminals incarcerated in a penal facility in the central Filipino province of Cebu danced to Internet infamy with a perfectly coordinated rendition of “Thriller’s” classic joint-rotting, pivot-hipped choreography.

In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Byron Garcia, the security consultant responsible for uploading Cebu’s massively popular dance videos said the routines were conceived to “Penetrate their psyche” and that “the end goal would be discipline.”

Naturally, some of the first responses to Garcia’s posts were negative. A varied cast of YouTube commentators were quick to state the obvious.  As one early viewer named “Oatmealdog” pointed out, “the prison system today is not harsh enough punishment at all.”

Among the prison’s other exercise regimes was Queen’s “Radio GaGa”, The Village People’s “YMCA” and the “I Will Follow Him” number from Sister Act.  Strange song choice aside, the immense amounts of organization, coordination, not to mention discipline that goes into these Ziegfield-sized penitentiary extravaganzas hardly sounds like recess. If anything, the striking videos of Cebu’s cast of a thousand—all clad in bright orange, nailing the complex and long progression of “Thriller”—vividly calls to mind the massive color-coded displays put on by North Korea’s energetic brood of flag-waving young patriots which have also become something of a phenomenon on YouTube.

The thin tots rise regularly at dawn to practice “the worm” with three hundred other kindergarteners in a square. That kind of rigor probably isn’t much fun at any age.

The practice of mandatory synchronized dance also has a fascist connotation. North Korea still hosts the annual Mass Games, a propagandist array of lithe young people, trapeze artists, semaphore and arena-sized portraits of Kim Jong II made up of human pixels.

But, anyone who has ever participated in a large-scale piece of organization like a marching band, a Civil War reenactment or a jumping crowd at a rock concert has felt the undeniable rush that accompanies kinetic unison.

On one ‘behind-the-scenes’ television report from Philippine TV station KMJS, the camera corners Dodong, the thick-jawed inmate who plays Michael Jackson.  When questioned on the effects of Cebu’s new ‘disciplinary’ method, Dodong poignantly states from a cot in his dingy cell, “We are like free men…”

It is difficult to imagine that double-jointed calisthenics provide any true sense of freedom for numerically insignificant performers when administrators and dignitaries nod good-naturedly at the frivolous spectacle of the warden’s corrective gimmicks.

And lest we forget that Cebu’s spectacular “Thriller” display is penal discipline ‘in action’, it should be noted that their rendition does not include the original happy ending.  The dance is, after all being performed by hardened convicts. The girlfriend character (played by a cross-dresseing Wenjelle Resane) doesn’t wake up to find ‘it was all a dream’ like pinup Ola Ray did in the music video. Instead, the prisoners improvise an unsettling faux mauling of the pony-tailed man. As Resane writhes under the cold, dead, hands of his fellow inmates, the grainy video simply snuffs out to black over Vincent Price’s villainous cackle; an individual casualty to the subjugating mob-dance.

If Dodong’s interview speaks for his fellow offenders, the inmates of Cebu have indeed been freed from the usual bonds of prison hierarchy, violence and ennui.

Both governmental and penal regimes have employed the synchronized dance as a form of repression, but it can also be wielded as a form of rebellion.

As a teenager growing up in the Arabian Gulf, selecting, memorizing and performing group dances was an important part of daily life. Incarcerated in our own seemingly boundless prison of unsaid cultural mores, my cousins and I found escape from or perhaps to our budding bodies in elaborate dance routines taken from popular American, Asian and Arab music videos.

While North Korean girls our age were exhibiting freakish control over malnourished bodies, we memorized simple Bollywood sequences and variations on the belly-dance theme.

What we lacked in acrobatic prowess or precision, we made up for in moxy. Determined to show up the stilted traditional dances of other girls our age at weddings—like the pigeon-walk or the figure-eight hair whip—we conspired with a wedding singer to stage a surprise performance of the Backstreet Boys’ ghoulish “Everybody” dance.

There was a defiant liberation in performing each pelvic thrust, squat and gyration before the judging eyes and slack jaws that lined the wedding stage. Right after the second chest-rubbing ‘Rock your Booodyy!’, a female security-guard escorted us off the stage. We were thus spared (temporarily) the probing gazes of old women trolling for eligible brides, a custom that terrified us at that age. Our crass synchronized dance acted as an antidote to any premature marriage proposals.  That night my cousins and I felt like free women upon return to our familial cell-block.

Vigilante synchronized dancing as practiced by Arab teens is on a much smaller scale than the impressive teen-staged dances performed at the Akihabara Liberation Demo in Tokyo last June. The Akihabara district of Tokyo is a veritable Mecca for obsessive hobbyists and more recently a haven for the sex industry.  You may have heard of the notorious buru-sera (sailor-bloomer) vending machines allegedly hawking schoolgirl’s used underpants? They originated in Akihabara.

Akihabara (as known as  Electric or Cyber City) is home and hangout to thousands of individuals who call themselves otaku, a Japanese crossover term that translates as geek. Like most people involved with subcultures, the pre-teens, teens and young adults who frequent Akihabara’s maid and butler cafes, video arcades and ‘Sex Convenience Store’ feel marginalized in the larger context of Japanese culture. The Akihabara Liberation Demo wrote a manifesto exclaiming: “We won’t let anybody stop what we like doing!” They then called for the organization of Akihabara anime fans, military aficionados, gamers, ‘virgins’ and hikikomoris (the sufferers of Japan’s epidemic of teenage hermitism) to display a united front against what they call the nation’s “otaku discrimination.”

The Akihabara Liberation Demo’s best subversive tactic was a large, if sloppy, synchronized street dance performed by bunnies, schoolboys, girl-sailors, storm troopers and company. They succeeded in displaying not only their Dance Dance Revolution-honed motor-skills but the ability to unite against the Japanese corporate culture invading their neon holy land.

In the slew of videos that popped up after the ‘Demo’, the high-impact dance number seems harmless enough until the costumed participants flee in perfect flock-formation from a pair of cops comically strolling through. With white gloves and nightsticks clasped behind their backs, the police send the dancing crowd into a darting minnow pattern over barricades and into glass-fronted shops.  The otaku rebel yell may not have been a vicious one but the fact that a huge synchronized dance can be a form of protest and not just of subjugation is exciting.

The intensity of a group performing as a controlled unit has always been utilized as a militaristic tool of constraint. But with our internet (if not our innate) ability to organize on a large scale, we may be readying to stomp and wave out of our collective chains and individual bonds. Maybe the universal appeal of a well-rehearsed dance is beating a path towards prison break and a country break.

Dance dance for revolution!


Sophia Al-Marri

SOPHIA AL-MARRI is a Qatari-American writer/cartoonist by day and bookstore clerk by night.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2007

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