Lessons from behind bars
Nathalie Tomada (The Philippine Star) - June 8, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Dingdong Dantes returns to his dancing roots as he plays a dancing inmate in the film Dance of the Steel Bars, which also stars Hollywood actor Patrick Bergin. According to Cesar Apolinario (who directs the film with Marnie Manicad), Dingdong was top of their mind when they were still dreaming up the cast of the action-drama inspired by Cebu’s world-famous dancing inmates.

To recall his showbiz beginnings, the 32-year-old actor used to be a member of an all-male dance group before he made the transition to acting. Despite the fitting background, Dingdong didn’t find the dancing any easier. “It took me a while to learn the dances. We did several workshops kasi di na ganun ka dali para sa akin ngayon to engage in a dance number.”

According to Dingdong, the Cebu dancing inmates — who first shot to fame in 2007 when a video showing 1,500 of them united in rhythm to the tune of Michael Jackson’s Thriller was uploaded on YouTube — became talents of the film, as themselves. “For the dance numbers, they were really the stars. Then, in some of the scenes, when we needed crowd shots, when we needed people interacting, they were the ones whom we shared scenes with.”

Doing the film afforded Dingdong more than a glimpse into the life behind bars. He relates the experience of shooting at the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC), a maximum-security prison that is “home” to the dancing inmates: “We shot at CPDRC for seven days straight. Our standby area was also one of the prison cells… Nakakatuwa kasi personally, we saw how they are, how they became disciplined because to do that, to come up with something like that (dancing inmates), kailangan na kakaiba ang program na ginagawa nila inside that facility. ”

Because it was his first time to film that long and that intense inside a prison, Dingdong admits to feeling fear, but only at the onset. “Definitely, there was fear, because we have this reputation of how it is inside prison, kung ano yung behavior ng mga tao sa loob. But reputation lang yung naririnig natin, we really don’t know what’s happening inside.”

If there was anything he found tough during the shoot, it was seeing first-hand the situation the inmates were in. Nevertheless, the better conditions at CPDRC didn’t go unnoticed with Dingdong. “Maayos na maayos unlike the other prison cells where we’ve shot in, na siksikan sobra. At CPDRC, they lived eksakto lang, not very comfortable, pero inaalagaan talaga sila dun. Maybe because they also respect the facility, lahat ng binibigay sa kanila. I rarely encountered (heard) stories of prison break and riot.”

Even if the shoot there was brief, there were lifelong lessons to learn from the experience. “As an actor, we do things for the audience, for the people, but it’s the opposite for them. They’re doing it not for the showcase, but for themselves.”

Dingdong adds, “It’s hard to generalize the experience having only spent seven to 10 days inside, but what (I’ve learned is that), no matter if you’re inside the prison cell or outside, lahat ng tao pwede magbago. And that there’s always hope. They may be in prison, but they haven’t lost hope.”


Hope and redemption are dominant themes in Dance of the Steel Bars, according to direk Cesar.

Dingdong is Mando, who finds himself in jail for frustrated murder. Patrick Bergin (Patriot Games, Sleeping with the Enemy) is Frank Parish, a retired US fireman and philanthropist who lands in prison after being falsely accused of murder. As Frank starts to give up his faith in everything he believes in, he strikes a friendship with Mando who has internal struggles of his own, one of which is a passion for dance that he takes pains to hide to prove his masculinity. Also in the cast are Joey Paras as Allona, a transsexual who tries to contribute to prison reforms by teaching fellow inmates dance exercises, and Ricky Davao as the new warden who institutes the positive changes. But they’re all caught up in a corrupt system that hinders second chances for the inmates.

Interestingly, when the program that gave birth to Cebu’s dancing inmates was introduced by then CPDRC security consultant Byron Garcia, he has said in media interviews that it was also inspired by a movie, particularly from a moving scene in Shawshank Redemption, wherein the sounds of a Mozart piece stream into the prison yard through the PA system, captivating the entire prison. The CPDRC program reportedly started out as experimental, simple exercises, eventually becoming fully-choreographed dances set to rock, hip-hop and pop hits, videos of which would be uploaded on YouTube. The Cebu dancing inmates turned into a sensation, online as well as offline, making the news all over the world, bringing in tourists with public performances and drawing attention to dance as a “form of rehabilitation.”

Dingdong himself believes in the transformative power of the arts. “It’s part of recreation. They have to do something else. Camaraderie is also one thing, the fact that you interact with fellow inmates, peacefully, (doing) something that is productive. I think that is the perfect model for other facilities in the whole country.”

When Dance of the Steel Bars was just being conceptualized and Cesar was still making his research, the journalist-filmmaker was also impressed with the effect of dance on the prisoners. “Maganda siya, rehabilitation through the art of dance. Who would ever think that you can bend steel (so to speak)? Many of them are there (facing trial or serving a sentence) for murder, arson, rape, massacre, drugs… But ang sarap na pakinggan na they have embrace this art.”

Cesar fondly recalls shooting a riot scene, which the inmates and the main actors will figure in. He had his fears, which were then proven unfounded as the scene went without a hitch, with everybody cooperative, that it took them three takes only to film it. 

Cesar says that they have shot scenes in another jail in Metro Manila, and the contrast was glaring. “Definitely, maayos (sa CPDRC). Naramdaman ko na na-rehabilitate talaga at natuwa ako kasi ang naka-rehabilitate sa kanila ay political will at dance. Iba ang ginawa ng Cebuanos. I’m grateful for the Cebuanos, Byron Garcia and (former) Gov. Gwen Garcia, iba yung ginawa nila dun.”

He says that the dancing inmates will receive an amount for their participation in the film — a co-production of the Dubai-based Portfolio Films and GMA Films — through a trust fund, which the inmates will share among themselves.

Graded A by the Cinema Evaluation Board, Dance of the Steel Bars opens in SM Cinemas on Independence Day, June 12 — a “symbolic playdate,” according to Dingdong, as the movie shows how inmates experience freedom even within prison walls through dance. 

Dingdong says, “The film itself is an advocacy. It’s educational. By watching the film, viewers will learn so many things, about people inside the jail, and from there, hopefully, they can draw inspiration.”

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