Surrendering to the Beat.
Dance, Dictatorship, and the War on Drugs
in Popular Culture

Alice Sarmiento’s essay Surrendering to the Beat critically reflects upon the atrocities committed by the PNP (Philippine National Police) against drug addicts and dealers in the poorest districts of the Philippines. Within these political power structures, dance becomes a method of both repression and protest. While dance is promoted as a method of discipline in prisons, people gather in Manila’s barangays, launching hip-hop competitions that set the stage for counterdances against master narratives. By contrasting the war on drugs in the Philippines with a vibrant dance culture that pops up at Metro Manila’s basketball courts, Sarmiento points to the power of the body as a tool of protest and resistance. Though her article discloses how politics try to use dance as yet another method of repression and alignment of minorities and suspected groups, Sarmiento proposes dance as a powerful tool for hope, resistance, and collectivity for a people, as much as for a better future.


INTRODUCTION: This is the Philippines

In the absence of any official space for public congregation, Filipinos often take to the basketball courts set up by barangay officials. A barangay is the smallest local government unit, tasked with keeping the peace and attending to neighborly concerns. The intimacy between these small-scale institutions and the private citizens they manage becomes more pronounced in the smaller pockets of the 17 cities that make up Metro Manila, pockets where Manileños often live on top of one another. The smells and sounds of the city waft through alleyways and open doors, where sweat, smoke, and karaoke intermingle to overwhelm the senses.

»The smells and sounds of the city waft through alleyways and open doors, where sweat, smoke, and karaoke intermingle to overwhelm the senses.«

The alleys of Manila’s barangays would often converge at this unofficial assembly hall, where the ground is flattened by repetition and routine: of outdoor play and exercise, of plastic chairs being dragged across a surface worn smooth by rubber-slippered feet. On some mornings, the space is converted to host religious gatherings: baptisms, weddings, wakes, even funerals. Little more than a makeshift arena, it is often a matter of time before these flexible spaces are claimed by commercial developers to realize their self-serving motives. But for now, the basketball court – aside from bringing residents together for a game of ball, of course – is a site for celebration.

July 15, 2018, was one of those raucous nights, when a basketball court in Barangay Malagasang (an enclave of Cavite, south of Metro Manila) became the venue for a dance competition in which hip-hop group Novel Crime were named champions. Looking at the group’s packed schedule from that month, one sees just how commonplace these dance competitions are, with the group sometimes performing two or even three times on some nights, often sharing the program with beauty pageants and singing contests. On any night, as many as a dozen groups compete for a modest prize ranging from 5,000 to 12,000 pesos (the equivalent of 80 to 200 euros).

Novel Crime’s elaborate choreography combined hip-hop and jazz, while making use of props and costume changes. Despite the space’s shoddy conditions, the bar was set high, bearing the pressure of modern dance long having garnered international recognition for Filipino groups. Consider the JabbaWockeeZ, who won top brass in the first season of America’s Best Dance Crew, where a swelling of Pinoy Pride (shorthand for Filipino Pride) ran through the nation when it was revealed that beneath their signature white masks, several of the group’s members were actually of Pinoy descent. Or recall the Philippine All-Stars, a homegrown dance crew that placed first in both the 2006 and 2008 World Hip-Hop Dance Championships.

It is not difficult to imagine how these flexible spaces, often with little recourse other than to remain alternative, allow hip-hop to thrive. Bending to the whims of the very ground beneath it, hip-hop accommodates a multitude of movements from the subtle pop of a wrist to the acrobatics usually found at the end of a performance. This was true for Novel Crime, whose performance that July evening opened with everyone lying on the ground, curled up in a densely composed landscape that recalls recent photographs of the innards of Metro Manila’s jails. »You know, there is always a time for everything,«echoed a voice over the speaker in the President’s familiar timbre, »but there is always a time to rest and to die.«

»Bending to the whims of the very ground beneath it, hip-hop accommodates a multitude of movements from the subtle pop of a wrist to the acrobatics usually found at the end of a performance.«

The subject of their six-minute piece was Oplan Tokhang,or simply tokhang, a term composed of the Cebuano words for »to knock,«and »to plead,«describing the methods while concealing the atrocities committed by the Philippine National Police (PNP) in their efforts to reform drug addicts and dealers (known as »pushers«) in the country’s poorest barangays. Tokhang is best known as the flagship program of Rodrigo Duterte’s presidential bid, wherein he proclaimed he would »fatten the fish in Manila Bay,«with the bodies of 100,000 dead drug addicts and pushers – a statement that has been corroborated by numerous news agencies. Both against and amidst allegations of human rights violations, the Philippine President has repeatedly and consistently riffed on a stubborn belief that, »You cannot wage a war without killing.« [1]

Those same speeches reverberated throughout the dimly-lit space as the dancers began to stir. Shot from the crowd, a plastic water bottle, a juice packet, and the back of someone’s head frame the action, but do not distract from the piece’s frenetic pacing as the 14-member dance crew enact the horror felt in the throes not only of the Philippine government’s violent methods, but as victims of the very problem authorities were claiming to curb: illegal drugs.

Within those six minutes, the group conveys a collective experience of desperation using physical cues verging on the cliché: writhing and reaching histrionically, before huddling then dispersing to reveal a lone dancer holding a plastic bag to his face. [2] Crowding around him again, the group disperses to reveal uniformed men, their guns cocked and aimed at this lone addict. Shots sound out, fake blood spills, and the audience is heard clapping and cheering. As in real life, the body count onstage rises as well, claiming everyone and driving the work to its compelling conclusion, where a banner is raised with a call to »STOP EXTRAJUDICIAL KILLINGS.« [3]

»Shots sound out, fake blood spills, and the audience is heard clapping and cheering.«

The Rhythm of Our Horror

»The horror of the Philippines is that its tragedy is best expressed through disco,« [4] wrote Filipina fictionist Gina Apostol in »Dancing with Dictators,«published in the online edition of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Here, she recounts her childhood in Tacloban, Leyte, under military rule. Sharing a birthplace with former first lady Imelda Marcos, Apostol describes themed choreographies and colorful costumes donned to entertain the first family during their visits – »an obeisance both innocent and obscene.«

Written as a review for David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s musical, Here Lies Love, Apostol approaches the subject with wry humor and conflicted affections. »At the Public,« she writes, »I kept being repulsed by history and propelled to dance to it – déjà vu all over again.« Originally a concept album by Byrne and Slim (real name: Quentin Cook), Here Lies Love was directed for the stage by Alex Timbers. It first showed off-Broadway at The Public Theater in 2013 (where Apostol saw it the following year), and then at the Royal National Theater in London in late 2014 and most recently at the Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2017. It received mixed reviews, with Sara Porkalob of The Stranger pointing out how the »erasure of imperial and neocolonial violence« [5] were instrumental in creating what Vogue in turn called»a booty-shaking blast of pure joy!«

What Apostol brings to the table that other critics cannot though are her memories. Her having lived through the martial law only thickens the essay’s emotional core, and like any entanglement with a birthplace that betrays us, she weaves a beautiful, heartbreaking description of a country and a people who will disco to their own demise.

Trailer for Here Lies Love, »the revolutionary musical experience from David Byrne and Fatboy Slim,« uploaded by user Here Lies Love; published on March 11, 2014. Retrieved March 8, 2019.


President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972 under what many now claim were completely fabricated events leading to a state of emergency. Under military rule, Marcos maintained power by silencing his critics, awarding his supporters with valuable government contracts as well as power over crucial government agencies. Public coffers were pillaged amid growing foreign debt, which between 1962 and 1985 (the years when Marcos was in power) rose from $360 million to $26.2 billion. The image and excessive lifestyle of Marcos’s first lady, Imelda, formed fitting signifiers for the abuse of power suffered under what has been called a »conjugal dictatorship.«

Under Duterte, whose authoritarian tendencies were exposed early on, the revisionism of history and rehabilitation of the Marcos name continues (among other steps taken from the Marcos playbook). The President himself has endorsed not only the vice-presidential campaign of Imelda’s son, Ferdinand, Jr. in 2016; he is also present for the 2019 senatorial campaign of Governor Imee, who is running under PDP-Laban and Hugpong ng Pagbabago (Consortium for Change), both of which are administration-backed senate slates. Given these power dynamics, it becomes easier to sense the danger in making entertainment fodder of a dictatorship.

Writing in 2014 however, long before Duterte’s win, Apostol paints a profound awareness of the absurdity at hand, foreshadowing a future where truth becomes stranger than fiction through the existential despair and twisted logic of Philippine everyday life. She writes, »[T]he propulsive beat of disco — or of certain rhythmic orders – which creates hypnotized swaying, a mindless obedience to thrill, is the rhythm of our horror.«

Dance Yourself Clean

Take, for instance, what happened when 500,000 alleged addicts and pushers surrendered to the PNP, putting their names on a list only to find themselves depending on institutions ill-equipped to handle their needs. Without any tried and tested rehabilitation programs, the Philippine National Police turned to fitness. In police-led Zumba classes, hundreds of alleged addicts and pushers were forced to make do with weekly Latin-inspired dance classes as a means to curb addiction. In the words of Eastern Police District Chief Romulo Sapitula, Zumba »helps drug users to detoxify or flush the bad substances from their system.« [6]

It is in their horrifying mix of futility and absurdity that Sapitula’s remarks perfectly complement the President’s official proclamations, for which the Filipino public is too often implored to read between the lines or understand when the President is »only joking.« [7] Could the President have been joking when, as early as July 1, 2016, (the day after his inauguration) The Guardian already reported a call for citizens who might »know of any addicts«to »go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful«? [8]

»Joking aside, in Duterte’s statements, the human ends where the ›addict‹ begins.«

Embedded in these »jokes« is an unrelentingly cruel appraisal of human life. Responding to condemnation from by various UN officials, Duterte reportedly shot (joked?) back with, »Crime against humanity? In the first place, I’d like to be frank with you. Are they humans? What is your definition of a human being?« [9]

Joking aside, in Duterte’s statements, the human ends where the »addict« begins. Beyond his bantering with the press, one gleans a dangerously reductive vocabulary for the human that is also at the core of Oplan Tokhang. On the surface, the methods carried out by the Philippine Police of going door-to-door and simply »inquiring« about drug use in Metro Manila’s households might seem like a benign and reasonable way to maintain peace and order; yet, the world has witnessed how this simple act has muddled the boundaries between simple security measures and police violence, through the bloodbath that came of »know[ing] of any addicts.«

For Oplan Tokhang, what makes a human is communicated largely through the performance of subservience – of a body that submits to surveillance and dangerous documentation. But if subservience can be performed, can the same be said of humanity? This notion underpinned Michel Foucault’s classic text »Docile Bodies« which appeared in the 1975 publication Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Writing about the conditioning of the soldier, Foucault describes »a bodily rhetoric of honor,« elaborated wherein »a calculated constraint runs slowly through each part of the body, mastering it, making it pliable, ready at all times, turning silently into the automatism of habit; in short, one has ›got rid of the peasant‹ and given him ›the air of a soldier:‹« [10]

»But if subservience can be performed, can the same be said of humanity?«

While Foucault’s work demonstrates how exercise and bodily conditioning have historically been employed across the world’s penitentiaries, it barely scratches the surface when it comes to the Philippine penal system’s use of conditioning and docility for purposes of entertainment and Internet virality. A prime example would be the inmates at the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC) who danced to an entire medley of Michael Jackson hits and went viral in 2008 with their performance of Thriller.

»cpdrc dancing behind bars« new version of THRILLER« 2011, featuring the CPDRC Dancing Inmates. Uploaded to YouTube on March 12, 2011 by user CPDRC DANCING INMATES; published Dec 27, 2008. Retrieved March 8, 2019.


Escalating from this already outsized absurdity is the production of a film based on the lives of those imprisoned at the CPDRC. Produced by Dubai-based production outfit, Portfolio Films International, in collaboration with a Philippine broadcast network, Dance of the Steel Bars (2013), is a well-intentioned attempt at exposing the shortcomings of the Philippine judicial system through what should be a humanizing look at the innards of the CPDRC. It tells of the unlikely friendship between Frank, a white-savior type played by Patrick Bergin; Mando, a former dance instructor; and Allona, a transgendered inmate.

»In the case of the film, it is a mere prop in the attempt to make the CPDRC look less like a prison and more like a party.«

Reporting for Reuters, Michaela Cabrera writes that, »The producers are betting on the inmates’ Internet fame for the project’s commercial success,« with the Thriller video having been viewed more 40 million times on YouTube. [11] Reflective of deeply problematic reporting, wherein Cabrera writes that »750 prisoners form[ing] the backdrop« to Frank, Mando, and Allona’s story, we see how the incarcerated body is rendered anonymous within the larger structure of prison reform. In the case of the film, it is a mere prop in the attempt to make the CPDRC look less like a prison and more like a party.

In one scene, Mando asks Frank, »So you think dancing will make life easier for me?«
Frank then answers, »It’s not because dancing will make it easier or help you survive. It’s because it’s what you want to do.« As if surviving imprisonment is simply a matter of finding what you love. Tossing further aside any pretense of subtlety, Governor Gwen Garcia (who was the actual Governor of Cebu at the time) makes a cameo as herself, no doubt having had a hand in the title card at the end, which reads »The Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center continues with its innovative programs.«

EPILOGUE: That’s Entertainment.

In the absence of any official space for public congregation, Filipinos often take to their basketball courts as spaces for leisure, celebration, »a time to rest and a time to die,« to echo the President’s speeches that played at the beginning of Novel Crime’s performance. On the flipside of this concrete, albeit flexible, space is the court of public opinion unfolding on social media, where in the absence of any reliable public archive, a video of Novel Crime’s tokhang performance was shared by a private citizen to the Facebook group DANCE CONTEST OF THE PHILIPPINES. There, it went viral with more than 11 million views, 10,000 reactions, 129 comments, and close to 30,000 shares.

»A virus is after all meant to heal, leaving the body (or in this case, the body politic), but not without bruises and scars: imprinting cultural memory with all its squalor and kitsch.«

Curiously however, the video was removed in March of 2019. Now reduced to ephemera, its removal is quiet testimony to our fraught reliance on data and the inconsistencies of the viral. A virus is after all meant to heal, leaving the body (or in this case, the body politic), but not without bruises and scars: imprinting cultural memory with all its squalor and kitsch. Novel Crime though are still actively performing and training, using hip-hop to convey perspectives on controversial social issues aside from tokhang.

As for the Zumba classes, there have been attempts at »harmonizing« these into large-scale state-sponsored fitness programs called »FitFil Youth Against Drugs.« Led by the National Youth Commission in partnership with the PNP, local government units, and various members of the private sector, FitFil was meant to involve 200 policemen who would serve as fitness coaches for young people across the country. In a completely unironic twist on Foucault’s concepts of surveillance and bodily control, these policemen would be called »Big Brothers« and trained to use dance and aerobics to keep the youth off drugs. [12] Since July of 2018 however, no other news has been published about FitFil, the most recent activity of which (a »fitness party« held in a mall) took place in that same month.

Amidst all the dancing, the death toll continues to mount, with official counts carried out by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) now exceeding 5,000. [13] Through these marching orders to shake it, it becomes evident that history is not only repeated through gunshots and grand displays. Despite a rising death toll and the continuing erosion of democracy, we will still find it in our bare bones to dance. The dancing, the applause that we live for, and the jokes we laugh at – like the pulsing disco beat – might, after all, be the only thing keeping us alive.


  1. Jump Up Agence France-Presse. »Drug users not human, killing them justified: Duterte,«in Straits Times,August 29, 2016. Accessed March 4, 2019.
  2. Jump Up The plastic bag is a familiar visual cue for locals, referring to the peddling and sniffing of Rugby – a strong smelling glue often used by the poorest of the poor for a cheap, temporary high.
  3. Jump Up Video documentation from later versions of this choreography show that the banner was changed to read »STOP DRUGS END KILLINGS.« A video of the same performancecan still be accessed through the group’s YouTube channel. Here, later renditions of the same choreography from October 7and October 16, 2018can also be viewed.
  4. Jump Up GinaApostol:»Dancing with Dictators,«Los Angeles Review of Books. December 2, 2014. Accessed March 5, 2019.
  5. Jump Up Sara Porkalob: »The Problem of Spectacle in David Byrne’s Here Lies Love,«The Stranger, May 31, 2017, Accessed March 10, 2019.
  6. Jump Up »Mandaluyong drug users forced to do Zumba to ‘detoxify’,« ABS-CBN News, July 6, 2016, Accessed March 2, 2019.
  7. Jump Up A role that has changed hands three times in the three years Duterte has been in power: Ernesto Abella in 2016, Harry Roque in 2017–18, and now Salvador »Sal« Panelo in 2019.
  8. Jump Up »Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte urges people to kill drug addicts,« The Guardian, July 1, 2016. March 3, 2019.
  9. Jump Up Agence France-Presse: »Drug users not human, killing them justified: Duterte,«Straits Times, August 29, 2016. March 4, 2019.
  10. Jump Up Michel Foucault: »Docile Bodies,« Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 1975.
  11. Jump Up Michaela Cabrera: »From YouTube to the Big Screen: Filipino Prisoners Dance to Fame,« Reuters Entertainment News, July 13, 2013, Accessed March 5, 2019.
  12. Jump Up Loreben Tuquero: »National Youth Commission sees fitness as way to prevent drug use,«Rappler, 15 July 15, 2018, Accessed March 4, 2019.
  13. Jump Up Sophia Tomacruz: »Duterte Gov’t Tally: Drug war deaths breach 5,000 mark before 2019,« Rappler. December 31, 2018, March 8, 2019.