On a Tuesday afternoon in mid-January, a dozen older Asian couples twirled to classic Cantonese pop hits on the neon-lit dancefloor at Lai Lai Ballroom and Studio, a beloved venue in Alhambra. The studio emanated a lush serenity of retirement bliss: between songs, dancers dressed in casual sweaters and long skirts retreated to cafe tables to chat over water and hot tea.
That the Lai Lai Ballroom remains a refuge for immigrant Asian seniors felt like a quiet miracle to some. One year ago, on 21 January 2023, a gunman opened fire at the nearby Star Ballroom and Studio, killing 11 people in the worst mass shooting in modern Los Angeles county history. All but one of the shooter’s victims were in their 60s or 70s. The shooter, Huu Can Tran, went to Lai Lai next, where its third-generation co-owner Brandon Tsay tackled and disarmed him. Despite the horror, many survivors have resumed dancing, both as a way to heal and an expression of defiance.
After he survived the shooting at Star Ballroom, Lloyd Gock, 67, didn’t wait long before returning to Lai Lai. Five years earlier, he had fallen into a severe depression as business suffered at his clothing company, Montana Jeans. One night, his friend took him swing dancing, where he felt such an extraordinary sense of relief that he kept going back week after week. He lost 30lbs, which helped keep his diabetes under control. To this day, he said dancing is the only thing that keeps him sane. “My deep depression never came back because I kept dancing,” he said. “If I were to stop because of this one idiot, who knows where I would be?”
Ballroom dancing has long been part of the Asian immigrant community in Los Angeles. Europeans and Americans brought ballroom dancing to Asia starting in the 1920s through colonialism and militarism, said Yutian Wong, a professor of dance studies at San Francisco State University. In the 1980s and 1990s, the phenomenon began to take off in the US among ageing, college-educated Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants, as well as south-east Asian refugees, who were looking for spaces to socialize. “Ballroom dancing has always had this aspiration element to it,” she said. “There’s a sheen of respectability and a class element to it.”
For Valentino Alvero, a Filipino immigrant who was killed during the shooting, dancing was a way to connect with the homeland he left behind, said Alvero’s daughter Kristenne Reidy. The revival of swing dancing in 1990s Philippines and the rise of the disco band VST & Company reached Filipino immigrants in the US. Reidy said her parents caught the fever and enrolled in a class, where they fell in love with swing, foxtrot and cha cha. “Something about dancing that appealed to Dad was that you really forgot about all the troubles and negative encounters you had throughout the day,” she said.
Brandon Tsay at Lai Lai Ballroom in Alhambra, California on 13 January 2024.
Lai Lai and Star were “two sides of the same coin”, said Tsay, who became a national hero for his actions. The studios served roughly the same clientele, but where the latter has closed for good, the former has become an anchor for those hoping to find joy and hope after tragedy.
Paul Cao, a decade-long customer at Lai Lai and Star Ballroom, said the shooting had no impact on his desire to dance because his passion for the activity outweighed his fear. But he said some of his friends and fellow dancers took several months off. A few still haven’t returned to the ballroom.
Cao and his wife, Millie, were the subjects of the 2019 Oscar-nominated short documentary Walk Run Cha Cha, which followed their love story from Vietnam to Lai Lai Ballroom. “It’s a big struggle for me to learn anything because my memory is not good anymore,” he said. “Dancing takes me back to the old days when I was in high school, to the joy of still being able to teach your body new things.”
For some former patrons at Star, though, the terror that the shooting caused was difficult to overcome. Yalin Faulk, who was the part-time assistant and bookkeeper at the venue, said she’s stopped ballroom dancing altogether after the shooting. For more than a decade, she’d spent the entirety of her Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons working and socializing with friends at Star. Faulk, 63, said she now spends that time alone at home, dancing only once a week on Saturday at a private studio. “It’s been very lonely and sad,” she said.
Last Saturday, to commemorate the shooting victims and share mental health resources, Tsay organized a community dance at Lai Lai, which his grandparents opened more than three decades ago. More than 100 people showed up, far exceeding his expectations. Separately, Tsay has also started an organization, the Brandon Tsay Hero fund, to raise awareness about mental health among seniors.
The first months after the shooting, Tsay said, had felt like “a nail in the coffin”. During the month-long closure that followed, his family thought about selling the business, worried that the shooting would compound the losses they incurred during the pandemic. But Tsay said they realized Lai Lai played such a vital role in shaping the livelihood of the hundreds of seniors who file through its doors every week. Before reopening, Tsay said he spent roughly $30,000 hiring guards and installing security upgrades, including new lights and cameras, so that patrons can feel safe to return. “I want them to be able to enjoy their golden years of retirement,” he said.