CEBU, Philippines – 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.
Watch the video
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 (1.5-by-3 meter) 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 inmatedance 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."
"The performance today has been amazing," said Karen Benrad, 29, from London. She and about two dozen foreign and local tourists later joined the inmates at the prison quadrangle, dancing to the tune of "Macarena" and "I just can't get enough."
Kim Hua-sung, a 23-year-old South Korean student in Cebu who watched the inmates' performance, said he is also a Jackson fan. "I'm sad that I can't listen to more songs from him."
In Taiwan, two top Michael Jackson impersonators donned fedora hats and sequined outfits Saturday, moonwalking to "Billie Jean" in their own tribute to the pop star.
Thirty-year-old Wang Chih-wei told The Associated Press he secured a photo op with his idol during Jackson's whirlwind tour in 1993 after winning an impersonation contest.
"I didn't know much English so I could only tell him, 'I love you,'" Wang said. "He was very friendly. I melted when he put his hand on my shoulder for the photo." - AP
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CEBU, Philippines (CNN) -- Amid the tropical heat of a Philippine prison, convicted murderers, rapists and drug dealers on Saturday paid tribute to Michael Jackson with a reprise of their YouTube dance hit, "Thriller."
A rendition of Jackson's 1980s smash hit by prisoners at the Cebu Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the central Philippines garnered more than 24 million views since 2007, when prison supervisor Byron Garcia first uploaded it to the video-sharing Web site.
The prison has since posted other dance videos, including performances to Van Halen's "Jump," Queen's "Radio Ga Ga," and Phil Oakey and Giorgio Moroder's "Together in Electric Dreams."
Jackson, known as the "King of Pop," died Thursday in Los Angeles, less than two weeks shy of the first in a series of comeback concerts in London, England.
When he heard the news, Garcia, himself a fan of the 50-year-old pop icon, organized a free tribute performance by inmates for local people in the prison courtyard.
Dancing was introduced at the prison in 2007, as a means of rehabilitating prisoners at a facility once notorious for its gang problem.
Every able-bodied prisoner must dance. If they refuse, they lose privileges, mostly conjugal visits. According to Garcia, the dancing occupies up to five hours a day. However he rejected claims he's abusing the prisoners' rights by forcing them to dance so many hours a day.
He said it gives them a renewed sense of worth and confidence, breaking them of their violent ways. He is convinced his prison is a model for prison authorities everywhere, an example of how to crack the plague of violent prison gangs.
"It brought back their self esteem. We have happy inmates now -- we don't want to go back to the old jail where we had mad, sad inmates," he said.
In searing temperatures, 1,400 men in bright orange tracksuits performed the 15-minute "Thriller" routine perfectly. They rehearsed for 10 hours the previous day, finally stopping at 3 a.m. to rest ahead of the show.
The superbly-choreographed moves, energy and obvious enthusiasm of the prisoners had the audience -- swelled by journalists from around the world -- captivated the audience. Several inmates even invited people from the crowd to dance with them.
"I never thought I would ever find myself dancing with a prisoner," one excited local said.
A local journalist even described the performance as Asia's best way of paying tribute to Jackson.
Garcia, who says the prison has witnessed no violence in three years, paid tribute to the performers. "I'm so proud of them," he said. "They got the dance exactly right."
Although it was "probably wishful thinking," he added that he had actually wanted Michael Jackson to come to Cebu to dance and play the role himself. "Now it's not going to happen," he said mournfully.
Convicted robber Mavin Cabido, 23, said: "I feel so sad as we idolize him really. The moonwalk is my favorite -- I like that."