For Chris Cho, Star Ballroom dance studio in Monterey Park was more than a place where he learned the foxtrot, cha cha and waltz – it was also a second home.
As a kid in the early 2000s, he went to the studio after school everyday, at first to watch his older siblings compete and carry their shoes around, later to learn from renowned dancers from Europe. At 18, he became an instructor, teaching mostly Chinese students who were the same age as his parents and grandparents.
“Star has always been there if I needed to teach or have a place to unwind or relax,” Cho, 33, said. “It’s where my brother, sister and I grew up.”
Now, he and his family have opened their own dance studio, but Cho still teaches at Star Ballroom four times a week. He had wrapped up a Saturday night class just an hour before a 72-year-old gunman opened fire in the venue and killed 11 people, including beloved manager Ma Ming Wei.
The slaying at Star Ballroom, and later the attempted shooting at Lai Lai Ballroom and Studio in nearby Alhambra, struck a pillar of local immigrant culture in the San Gabriel Valley area, a cluster of majority-Asian cities in eastern Los Angeles.
Patrons say that independent dance studios such as Star Ballroom – more than a dozen of which cover the sprawling Asian enclave – are places where elders find refuge and company in retirement, and where aspiring dancers like Cho age into adulthood and go on to win championships.
Yalin Foulk, a part-time bookkeeper and assistant at Star Ballroom, described the venue as a kind of paradise for middle-aged and elderly immigrants from China and Taiwan. One reason is that Medicare subsidizes private and group dance lessons for seniors who otherwise might not be able to afford multiple classes a week, she said.
“They’re very happy here,” said Foulk, 62, who has been dancing at Star Ballroom and various other studios across the San Gabriel Valley for more than a decade.
In a 2007 research paper for the Journal of Asian American Studies, George Uba wrote that Asian Pacific dancers in southern California have “renormalized” ballroom dancing, once a favorite pastime of the elite, as a “transnational social activity”. In fact, he wrote, “one triangular sector of the Asian-populated San Gabriel Valley has more of these large international dance studios than does all of Orange county”. Such studios, he added, are non-existent in wealthy white-majority neighborhoods such as Santa Monica and Malibu.
In China, modern plaza dancing is particularly popular among middle-aged and older women because many retire at the age of 50, said Min Zhou, professor of sociology and Asian American studies at the University of California Los Angeles.
“These women have a lot of energy,” she said. “They dance as an effective way of keeping fit and healthy and socializing and hanging out with friends.”
Ballrooms also function as an important sociocultural space for the Asian diaspora, Zhou said.
In December, Filipino instructor Alex Satrain organized a 150-person dance party at Star Ballroom to fundraise for homeless people. The studio also regularly hosts rowdy dance parties and karaoke sessions in the afternoons and evenings. Lai Lai Ballroom and Studio was the subject of the 2019 Oscar-nominated short documentary, Walk, Run, Cha Cha, which follows two older Vietnamese refugees hoping to reclaim their lost youth on the dance floor.
The in-laws of Zhou’s child, who are Vietnamese, have been regulars at Star Ballroom for many years. Three times a week, she said, they would drive more than 30 miles, often battling rush hour traffic in LA, to take classes. They would have been there on Saturday night, too, had they not needed to attend a lunar new year family dinner.
“I jokingly said going to ballroom dancing is like going to church to them, a very important part of their life,” Zhou said.
For many Asian immigrants, ballroom dancing offers more than just an opportunity to exercise and socialize. Each year, scores of dancers enter local ballroom dance competitions in the “Pro-Am” category, where dance professionals pair up with their students. Marlene Xu, 67, said each performance holds the promise of a breakthrough.
“It’s a challenge to yourself, to be better than you were last year,” said Xu, who began dancing at Star Ballroom seven years ago.
The ballroom is also where she grew her social circle and developed long-lasting friendships, including with Ma, the owner. “He was a very caring, very loving person,” she said, noting that he’d always walk her to the car after a late-night class to make sure she was safe. “He makes you feel like it’s a family there.”
In 2016, Ma told the Pasadena Star News that he wanted to build a welcoming space where older people from different cultures felt comfortable interacting and learning from one another.
“I want to provide an active place for the Asian community of Monterey Park to help prolong their life and improve their health,” he said. “Having a place where people from all over the world can come together and communicate through dance is how I can help.”
Xu said she hopes the tragedy can bring about greater awareness, and destigmatize the associated shame, of mental illness within the Asian American community. At the same time, she urged the dance community to support one another and continue pursuing their passion.
“We need to stay together to be strong,” she said. “Violence cannot stop our dance.”