Before the Gunfire, It Was Their Glittering ‘Dancing Star’

MONTEREY PARK, Calif. — Today they arrive in satin heels and glittering gowns of organza, in waistcoats and red bow ties. The women’s cheeks are stained with blush, their hair in chignons. The men’s shoes shine.

It is the annual showcase, a spectacle of dance featuring the rumba, samba, fox trot, tango and more. A throng of a couple hundred familiar faces, mostly senior in age, greet one another in a mix of Mandarin, Cantonese and English.

First up is a waltz to a 1950s ballad, led by Maria Liang who is dressed in a white and black number that sparkles like the string of lights behind her. She is the owner of this expansive establishment known as Star Ballroom Dance Studio.

Opposite her is Ming Wei Ma, the effusive manager of the place. He is 72 and glides on the wooden floor as those around him swirl in a rainbow of chiffon.

The mood is giddy, the crowd vivacious. A babble of laughter and chatter will continue for hours.

One day soon, this world will fracture in ways that will not be understood. It will become another backdrop for the kind of tragedy America knows too well.

A man with a modified semiautomatic pistol will appear. He will take 11 lives and shatter many more. He will head to another ballroom studio known as Lai Lai and enter the lobby with the same gun.

Mr. Ma, the studio manager of Star, will die. Ms. Liang, its owner, will close her business indefinitely.

And both studios, their names and facades, will be splashed across news sites, their existences diminished to scenes of violence and terror. Monterey Park, a city just east of Los Angeles and once trumpeted as a haven for Asian immigrants, will be forever linked to a moment of despair.

But today is before all of that. Today is a Sunday in November, an innocuous date and a grand collection of talent and flair. Today is about outstretched arms, swishing hips, high-slit skirts, deft kicks, clasped hands, panache. And joy.

Today everyone makes it home safely.

It is how this dance community could have first been introduced to outsiders — as a vibrant circle of artistry. And how, perhaps, it can still be known.

Disco Lights and Overwhelming Confidence

Star Ballroom was the vision of Ivy Wang, a dancer from Taiwan. A single mother who ran a small studio in the area, she had been told her plan for a giant hall was too ambitious.

But after opening in 1995, Star became a popular destination for those in their later years who finally had time on their hands after decades of work. Hundreds would arrive for its weekend dances when the room took on a hazy glow from the disco lights and fog machine, and a D.J. played CDs of Taiwanese songs.

Ms. Wang taught dance there, as did her 21-year-old daughter and a couple dozen instructors. Her son, still in college, oversaw the front desk and the paperwork.

“When the music came on, our feet just can’t stop and there’s an overwhelming sense of confidence and happiness,” recalled Ellen Wong, 70, who discovered Star two decades ago. She and her husband took dance classes while running Kim Fung, a beloved restaurant in the area. Now retired, she still remembers the yellow lace dress with gold sequins she once wore.

Regulars called the studio wu xing, or “dancing star,” and followed when it moved from Atlantic Avenue to its current location on Garvey Avenue.

Its biggest competition was Lai Lai, a studio less than three miles away in Alhambra. When it opened in 1992, Lai Lai prided itself on being the first ballroom dance studio in the region with a floor larger than 2,400 square feet. “It was an instant hit, the grand opening was packed,” said Tom Tsay, whose parents were one of four couples who founded the studio.

Both venues opened at the beginning of a period when dance studios were popping up in Asian enclaves throughout California and beyond. Some were large and attracted marquee instructors, often with European roots, while others had a smaller footprint. Before long, there would be Imperial Ballroom in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Quoc Duong near Orange County’s Little Saigon. Queens Ballroom Dance in Flushing.

Many of the owners had become enamored with ballroom dance while growing up in Asia. A Western form, ballroom arrived there during colonial rule and was glamorized in Hollywood movies and by those who returned from trips to Europe, said Yutian Wong, a professor of dance studies at San Francisco State University.

Ms. Wong’s own parents left Malaysia in the 1960s, settling in Southern California where their social lives revolved around ballroom dance studios, including Star and Lai Lai.

The appeal lay in low-impact exercise and a chance to stave off loneliness. And Asian-owned dance halls offered something unique to locals: a demanding art form that, situated in their community, felt within reach.

Students of ballroom dance had a reputation for immersing themselves in the challenge.

“They all wanted to devour dancing as much as possible, I mean, to the core,” said Lilia Mkrtchyan, 35, who was born in Armenia and taught at Star for two years. “They want to know the mechanisms, and they want to know it in depth.” And she was amazed at the students’ level of commitment to the showcases.

“The makeup and tanning and costumes,” she said. “Eyelashes, full-on salon hair, acrylic nails. They would go all out.”

The clientele at Star and Lai Lai overlapped, and at one point the studios battled over customers for their afternoon tea dances and evening socials, each trying to undercut the other on price. The two owners finally met and agreed to stop.

Star never closed its doors and was bustling until late at night.

“It was like our home,” said Ms. Wang’s daughter, Jo-Ann Chui, 49, who took over the business before selling it around 2013. “We would wake, and go to the studio.”

Much of Star’s revenue came from galas and holiday parties featuring buffets and nonalcoholic drinks, even on Christmas and New Year’s Day.

“I told my mother, ‘With the effort and time that we put in, this is a money-losing business, it’s not worth it,’” said Ms. Wang’s son, David Chui, 48.

“My mom said, ‘Do you see, if we close, all these people coming every day will have no place to go.’”

‘You Have To Have Passion’

For all of their festivities, the magic of Star and Lai Lai was in how they could spark transformations.

Most of their students had followed a first-generation trajectory, struggling to assimilate, dreaming bigger for their children than for themselves. They had led practical lives shaped by routine, making little time for frivolity. Dance broke them free.

“It made my life more colorful,” said Cynthia Shiang, 73, who started taking classes two decades ago and has watched newcomers undergo a similar evolution. A retired social worker who immigrated from Taiwan, she boasts of doing the splits and kicking her leg higher than her head.

“When some people see me, they ask, ‘Are you a dancer?’ I feel so honored.”

Houston Luu, 59, came to Lai Lai around 2009 after attending a party where he had been embarrassed about not knowing how to dance. He began taking classes, drawn to ballroom’s required precision, where technique could yield beauty.

A father of two and an accounting clerk, Mr. Luu eventually entered a dance competition, winning third place for his skill and age level. The experience was exhilarating. He liked the attention.

Many of the instructors, too, saw a shift within themselves, their own rigid backgrounds in the sport softened with gifts of sliced watermelon and ginseng root tea.

In 2010, Nikolay Voronovich and Maria Nikolishina left Russia to pursue dance professionally in the United States. They found a home at Star where they taught for nearly four years. The couple, who once trained world champions, were initially frustrated with amateurs whose room for improvement was limited.

They came to realize their lessons were about enriching lives, not perfection. “It made us become more humble,” Mr. Voronovich, 40, said.

Students cheered on the couple at dance competitions. One even rented them a cheap room in her house, which allowed them to move out of a motel.

“They feel that we are theirs, and we feel that they are ours,” Ms. Nikolishina, 41, said. “We don’t feel homesick during those years.”

When Covid crept through the region, students were forced into isolation. The image of Asian seniors became one of vulnerability, as they were victims of racially driven attacks across the country — a new reality that contrasted deeply with those who had thrived within the dance community.

It was a relief when people began returning to the studios, where the rich details of their universe could be mostly pieced back together.

For Millie and Chipaul Cao it meant a continuation of a love story, one in which dance had gently reshaped a marriage of 34 years.

Refugees from Vietnam, the Caos came to Lai Lai in 2012 in search of a way to get back to how they were when they met as teenagers. Classes in the style of international Latin dance shortened the distance between them, a journey that was featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary short, “Walk Run Cha-Cha.”

On evenings the couple, both in their 60s, could be spotted practicing at the studio. Mr. Cao often wore a slim black shirt while his wife favored a short, flared skirt.

Hand in hand, their hips would twitch before their bodies meshed into a swivel, legs entwined. Together they moved with an earnest grace, with curved fingers, with chins held high.

Dance ignited their hunger for something more than tedium in their older years.

“I have no motivation to learn stuff at work anymore,” said Mr. Cao, an electrical engineer for nearly four decades. “I want to dedicate my time to dancing. You have to commit. You need to learn techniques. You want to be more stylish, you want to be more fancy. You have to have passion.”

A Return To Dance

It is all of this that a killer tore apart.

The gunman would arrive at Star on a Saturday night in January and turn a Lunar New Year party into an evening of fear and great sorrow. He would fire into the crowd, leaving many to remember the way the bodies fell.

When he appeared afterward at Lai Lai, the rampage would end. Because Brandon Tsay, the 26-year-old who helps run the business with his sister, would confront him at the entrance. Mr. Tsay, a computer coder, would fight for his family, for his customers, for his life, and wrench the gun away.

Soon there would be vigils and memorials that did their best to pay tribute to the six women and five men who died, a mix of mothers and fathers, aunts and brothers, confidants and friends. Family members would speak of the victims’ generosity, their resilience, their ebullience. The way they loved their children.

On the day Lai Lai reopened it would be as a single studio that now had the duty of two. Only a handful of people would appear. No music would be played.

Maksym Kapitanchuk, a 32-year-old instructor who left Ukraine as a teenager, would feel the urge to return. The studio was where he made his first friends — students who helped him get a credit card and fix his car, gifted him red envelopes with money on the holidays and took his visiting parents out to dinner.

Mr. Kapitanchuk would cry when talking about the warmth of his 65-year-old student My Nhan who was among those fatally shot.

After a few more days, the ballroom would begin to feel a bit lighter as private classes started back up and a stream of melodies lilted in the background. Still, some who arrived would embrace friends and inhale shaky breaths. There would be tears and knowing looks and weary eyes.

And then, a week after the shooting, on a Sunday afternoon, the studio would host its usual tea dance. The lights would be turned down low and about 50 patrons, half the usual crowd, would take to the wooden floor.

People would speak of the need to be here, for the release it might give their troubled minds. And there would be the belief, a wish, that dancing could still mean something good.

No one would want to forget what happened. But everyone would hope it was possible to recognize all that was here before. That maybe joy could find its way to them again.

Michael Lin contributed reporting.

Additional production by Ben Laffin, Sarah Kerr, Zack Haskell, Madeleine Peters and Melissa Cho.

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