By Elizabeth Wolfe, CNN. Photographs by David Butow/Redux for CNN.
For years, dancers in high heels and glitzy dresses have hurried into Phillip Sam’s beauty supply store in Monterey Park ahead of big events, searching the maze of products for a finishing touch — strong hold hairspray, a swipe of glittery eyeshadow, a bejeweled claw clip.
It’s often their final stop before hitting the polished floors of Star Ballroom Dance Studio just across the street. But Sam thinks it will be quite some time before another dancer walks through his front door.
Two of his longtime customers, Mymy Nhan and Ming Wei Ma, were killed last weekend when a gunman opened fire inside the mirrored ballroom, leaving 11 dead and nine others wounded as the Asian-majority city ushered in the Lunar New Year.
“We went from celebrating — I have pictures of me with my family, happy, having dinner — and then that night, we’re texting, ‘Are you guys okay? Did you hear about this?,'” said Elizabeth Yang, an attorney who took ballroom classes at the studio every Monday.
The tragedy has dealt a devastating blow to the city’s vibrant ballroom dance community. Star Ballroom has long served as an essential gathering spot, particularly for senior residents. Each day, rows of well-dressed dancers would glide across the brightly lit ballroom as a roster of competitive dance coaches guided them through the elegant steps of a waltz, tango, salsa or traditional Chinese dance. On weekend nights, dance parties would often fill the floor with over 100 people.
“At the dance studio, at age 40, I’m probably the youngest member there,” Yang said, later adding, “There’s not too many active things for older people to do. … For those people who want to stay fit and get some form of exercise, they go ballroom dancing.”
Many of the venue’s party attendees the night of the shooting were older, gathered there to relish
in the final hours of Lunar New Year’s Eve. All but one of the shooter’s victims were in their 60s or 70s. The youngest, Xiujuan Yu, was 57.
Now, the dance hall has been closed indefinitely, leaving its community without a crucial place of connection even as they mourn the losses of friends and beloved studio members.
‘My family, my aunts, my uncle. It could have been them’
Star Ballroom is at the epicenter of Monterey Park’s robust business district, a street lined with decades-old family businesses, mostly Asian-owned.
When authorities announced the tragedy had struck along Garvey Avenue, many in the community could picture it immediately. It’s where residents crowd into Chinese cafes, stroll with their friends to tea shops and bakeries, and stop in markets to pick up fresh vegetables and herbs. Visitors could find the dance hall tucked next to a noodle shop and Chinese grocery and health store, its front door guarded by a pair of arched metal gates and strings of twinkling lights.
The attack sent shock waves through the community, stunning even those who had never stepped foot in the studio. Many could call to mind a cousin, friend, uncle or aunt who has taken classes there.
The victims included a caring father with plans to retire to his native Philippines, a longtime dance student, and the widely adored Ming Wei Ma, or “Mr. Ma,” who ran the studio with his significant other, Maria Liang, according to Yang and others close to them.
Lian Zhang, who grew up in neighboring San Gabriel, arrived at Monterey Park’s city hall Monday night, clutching a packet of tea lights as she waited to meet friends for an evening vigil.
“The most hurtful part is how close it was to home,” Zhang said. “We would have never thought that this was going to happen here. And I’m sure people say that everywhere. But it’s shocking … And of course, I’m going to think about my mom and think about my family, my aunts, my uncles. It could have been them,” she said.
Ma taught dance classes at the elderly daycare where Zhang’s mother works, she said. Her mother remembered Ma as “very kind, very loving. Really sweet to all of the staff and to the elders that he teaches,” she said.
Ma and Liang have cultivated a welcoming studio for dancers of all levels, often keeping members connected through WeChat groups where they would share updates, event photos and remind people of upcoming classes. The couple would be at the studio morning to night, encouraging new students to stand at the front of the class or watching dancers from one of the café tables lining the ballroom wall.
“They’re like the cool aunt and uncle,” said Kevin Leung, a nurse who also rented space in the studio several days a week to teach traditional lion dancing and Kung Fu classes. When they heard Leung needed a space to teach his classes, they “welcomed us with open arms,” he said. “They’re like family.”
‘We’ve got to push forward’
It may take some time before dancers — many of whom are mourning the loss of multiple studio members — are ready to return to the venue again, Leung said, but he believes it’s what the community needs.
“I was an ER nurse for 10 years. I’m used to seeing traumas. I’ve seen everything under the sun. It’s different when it happens to you. And then it’s like, wow, this is on your front doorstep. So we’ve got to push forward,” Leung said. One of his close family friends, 70-year-old Diana Man Ling Tom, was also killed in the shooting.
“It’ll take time for (Liang) to get back on her feet, for the community to trust this place again. But I think it has to be here,” he said. He said he has already told Liang, “As soon as you’re back on your feet, we’ll be here.”
“I will not have any qualms about bringing my daughter back after they reopen,” Yang said. “We’ll still go back and we’ll still ballroom dance. We’re not going to be scared.”
Several dancers close to Liang have assured her they will flood back into the studio as soon as she is ready, Yang said, and in the meantime they will continue to support her as she has always done for them.
“It shows how resilient the community is,” she said. “Whenever there’s a challenge … the community can come back stronger than before.”
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