For older Asian-American immigrants, ballroom dancing was supposed to be a safe haven

When a gunman fatally shot 11 people and wounded nine others in Monterey Park over the weekend, it was just the latest tragedy in America’s horrific mass shooting epidemic.

The gunman attacked the Star Ballroom Dance Studio, one of the best-known hubs of the vibrant Asian-American ballroom dance community in Southern California, a longtime safe haven for older immigrants, the kind of place where they knew they would be welcome.

“In Asia, ballroom dancing is an incredibly popular sport and social dance,” said Marisa Hamamoto, a professional ballroom and salsa dancer in Los Angeles who had been on Star at one time.

“The ballroom is a great activity where Asians can come together and meet people with that shared experience. It is a place to find belonging and connection,” Hamamoto said. “Many Asian Americans are traumatized by this. When we start seeing photos of victims, we can’t help but feel that these people are our parents and grandparents. Especially after all the phobia during COVID, it’s breaking out.”

All of the victims killed in the ballroom study, which included immigrants from Taiwan, China, and the Philippines, were in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. Yutian Wong, a professor at San Francisco State University’s School of Theater and Dance who specializes in Asian-American dance studies, said her father, a Malaysian immigrant in his 70s, would likely have been in the ballroom dance when the shooting happened Saturday night, if he hadn’t been dropping off a relative elsewhere.

“It’s pretty awful. That’s the thing. Just imagine these places that are considered safe community spaces, where no one will be harassed,” Wong said. “I know a lot of people think, ‘Ballroom dancing is so weird, why do Asians like it?’ But it’s been a large and prosperous community for a long time.”

The once strictly European practice of ballroom dancing has long since gone international and taken on a life of its own, with dancers of all ages and nationalities finding joy, community and healthy exercise by swaying through the waltz, the foxtrot, swing and rumba. “Dancing With the Stars” was a staple of ABC programming for more than 30 seasons before recently moving to Disney+. California ballroom competitions can attract hundreds of competitors of all ethnicities.

But ballroom dancing has especially drawn older immigrants to Southern California, not only as a popular art form in their home countries, but also as an accepted, recognized, and accessible art form in the US.

“A lot of immigrant communities (Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino) have ballroom dance studios,” said Carolina San Juan, director of graduate mentoring for UCLA’s academic advancement program, who did her master’s thesis on Filipino ballroom dancers. americans. “It’s ours, ballroom dancing belongs to us, and when I say we, I mean all immigrants. Lots of immigrant communities, not just Asians.”

A 2007 scholarly article in the Journal of Asian American Studies noted that although dance studios are “ubiquitous” throughout Southern California, only a few existed expressly for International-style ballroom dancing, with the largest located in enclaves. Asian-Americans like Monterey Park, a city several miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

“Interestingly, none of these studios exist in Los Angeles’ posh Westside or the Santa Monica or Malibu areas,” wrote the article’s author, George Uba. “They also don’t exist in the demographically white areas of Ventura County or upscale Santa Barbara. A triangular section of the San Gabriel Valley, populated by Asians, has more of these large international dance studios than all of Orange County.”

In an email to The Times, Uba, a professor emeritus and former head of the English department at Cal State Northridge, said older Asian immigrants go to ballroom dancing primarily for the exercise, to socialize and for “the aesthetic properties of dance.” ”.

“Dance studios like Star and Lai Lai with their afternoon tea dances and evening dance ‘parties’ are not only full of AAPI dancers, but cater primarily to social dancers, not international style dancers. level of competition”, said Uba.

Ballroom dancing experienced a surge in popularity among middle-aged professionals in both Asia and the US in the late 20th century, aided by televised ballroom dance competitions and popular movies.

The midsize 2004 American ballroom dance film “Shall We Dance?” starring Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez and Susan Sarandon was actually a remake of a better-received 1996 Japanese film of the same name, starring Koji Yakusho as a drifting office worker who decides to take up ballroom dancing.

The original “Shall we dance?” it swept major film awards in Japan, where some ballroom dance competitions at the time could draw as many as 20,000 viewers. It also struck a social chord, coming at a time of loosening social mores in Japan.

Ballroom dancing had also become popular in other Asian nations, such as the Philippines, as well as among immigrant diasporas.

“It was so popular at the time, in the early 2000s, that there were Filipino Americans pooling their money to get a Manila dance instructor visa to come to the US and teach them the latest dance moves from Manila. Manila”. Saint John said.

In 2019, “Walk Run Cha-Cha”, a 20-minute documentary directed by Laura Nix, told the story of two older Vietnamese refugees, Chipaul and Millie Cao, who took to ballroom dancing at Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra. . – Where bystanders disarmed the Star Ballroom shooter before he could carry out a second massacre.

“I work as an engineer. We work full time. We can afford to retire. Our daughter has her own life right now,” Chipaul Cao narrates in the documentary, which was nominated for an Oscar for documentary short. “So we go to the club At least four nights a week, we take group lessons, private lessons, and dance on the floor for three hours a night. Why do I spend so much time dancing? Am I crazy?”

Cao added: “We know that we don’t have much time left. We are making up for lost time.”

Minn Vo, 46, who runs a jazz dance outfit called the Hollywood Hotshots, knew the Star Ballroom’s slain owner Ming Wei Ma, 72, and paid tribute to the welcoming space Ma had fostered at the Star Ballroom for all kinds of dancers. .

“He was really passionate and generous,” Vo said. The club “brought the community together. Rich, poor, there was no class there. It was Asian owned but very diverse. This is really devastating. All my memories of there are now gone.”

Hamamoto, the professional dancer, urged the dancers to keep dancing.

“We get through the hardest parts of life by moving our bodies,” he said. “Dancing is an escape, and I hope we don’t run away from the studios too. We have to keep this community alive.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *