Finding Hope in a Ballroom Dance Scene Torn by Tragedy
It has become a tragic routine: A mass shooting draws attention to an area, thrusting it into an unfortunate spotlight. Suddenly we want to learn the intricate details of a community that had always been in our midst.
And so it went last month when Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park became the destination of a lone gunman who fatally shot 11 people. He then appeared at a nearby studio known as Lai Lai but was fought off in the lobby by the grandson of its original owners.
In the days that followed, I spent time talking to patrons and instructors of the two studios and discovered a tight-knit world of passionate dance students. Many were first-generation Asian Americans, drawn to the artistry of the tango, fox trot and cha-cha after having spent most of their lives working and raising children.
They held a reverence for the craft and were dedicated to studying its technique. Some favored the social gatherings that featured an open floor, where they could buy a ticket to what is known as the afternoon tea dance or the night dance. And there were often parties and showcases, which would draw crowds of 200 or more.
Star and Lai Lai shared a clientele and had been places of refuge. There were accounts of confidence, displays of style and verve — and with them, transformations of lives that had once been shaped mostly by duty and routine. And patrons had built bonds with world-class instructors, many of them born in Europe, who found their edges softening among such eager students.
There is a regret that comes from not having previously known about such a rich community and the history behind it. And I wondered if there was a way to write about these studios in all their glory, to magnify the beauty and dignity that could have been seen before violence brought us to their doors.
The result was an article published last week that included videos and photographs from my colleagues Isabelle Qian, Li Qiang and Ben Laffin.
It helped to speak with Jo-Ann and David Chui, siblings whose mother, Ivy Wang, opened Star ballroom in 1995. Wang was a dancer from Taiwan and a single mother. Together, the three ran Star, which never closed its doors and was bustling until late at night.
Much of its revenue came from galas and celebrations that were held for every holiday, even Christmas and New Year’s Day. Some would drive for hours, turning up in crystal-studded gowns and heels.
The work was grueling, but Wang and her children saw the studio as a hub for those far from their birth lands.
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“At the time we provided comfort and a place to go for those new immigrants who are struggling,” Jo-Ann Chui, 49, told me. “If we close, then where are they going to go? It’s going to be lonely, and they want to hang out with their friends. Star offered a community where they feel they can belong.”
She taught ballroom classes at the studio along with other instructors, and she eventually took over the business from her mother before selling it around 2013.
A memorial with flowers, candles and photos of the victims now sits outside Star. It is not clear whether Maria Liang, the current owner, will reopen it.
Lai Lai, on a main thoroughfare in Alhambra, has tried to carry on, welcoming many back to its wooden floor — a place for those who still find hope in dance.
If you read one story, make it this
California’s fur ban took effect in January. So far, it’s been largely met with a shrug.
The rest of the news
Snowfall: California residents saw snowfall on Thursday in some unusual locations, and the storm is about to intensify in the state.
Oil profits bill: A California bill penalizing oil profits has made little progress in the months since Gov. Gavin Newsom called for the proposal, The Associated Press reports.
Weinstein sentenced: Harvey Weinstein, the movie producer whose treatment of women propelled the #MeToo movement in 2017, was sentenced to 16 years in prison for committing sex crimes in Los Angeles County.
Police shooting: Los Angeles police officers shot and killed a woman who pointed a pellet gun at them, The Associated Press reports.
Hunger strike: After detainees began a hunger strike last week at two Central Valley facilities to protest the conditions, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it takes allegations of misconduct seriously, The Fresno Bee reports.
Merchants: Many small-business owners in San Francisco saw revenues plunge during the pandemic and suffered losses from commercial burglaries — to the point that they’re hanging on by a thread, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.
Reverend steps down: The Rev. Cecil Williams is stepping away from GLIDE, the world-renowned Tenderloin church and social movement he started 60 years ago, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.
What we’re eating
Easy vegan recipes.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Fred Hoffman:
“The American River bike trail stretches 32 miles from the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers near downtown Sacramento and heads eastward to Folsom Lake. This car-free path hugs the American River, attracting cyclists, runners, walkers, bird watchers and others attracted to its serenity and natural beauty. Wildlife and native plants are in abundance. It’s no wonder smiles are in big supply there.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected] We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
And before you go, some good news
In a relationship open to perusal by millions of followers, the podcasters Cody Michael Kolodziejzyk and Kelsey Lang Kreppel have made a practice of not letting their favorite moments turn into content.
Kreppel, 29, and Kolodziejzyk, 32, live in Los Angeles. They have separate YouTube channels but collaborate on certain series, including “Couples Cringe.” Both have built an audience on playful musings.
Kolodziejzyk, who shortened his professional name to Ko at the start of his media career, is known, among other things, for co-hosting the “Tiny Meat Gang” podcast with Noel Miller. Kreppel, a vlogger known for her red-carpet fashion reviews, runs a fashion and accessories line, TRULUVE, and hosts a podcast called “Circle Time.”
Thanks for reading. We’ll be back on Monday.
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.
Soumya Karlamangla and Briana Scalia contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].
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