Hardwood timber My mother had two issues with the ballroom-dance scene in the San Gabriel Valley. Some of the men who frequented the dance studios, she complained, had bad hygiene, were out of shape, and held her too tightly on purpose—even the ones who had wives at home. The other reason she didn’t like ballroom dancing was the matter of coupledom. As a single woman, she would have to wait for someone to approach her for a dance. Bad hygiene notwithstanding, there was a shortage of men in the ballroom studios; women outnumbered them three to one.
My uncle, meanwhile, was in demand on the dance floor. He became a ballroom-dance instructor. There are two different types of instructors at ballroom-dance studios in the San Gabriel Valley: professional dancers, often Eastern European, who lead group dance classes; and male instructors who dance one-on-one with women who hire them. My uncle falls into this second category. There is instruction in these transactions, but the primary function of his side hustle is to be a dance partner to women in need.
He charges fifty dollars an hour, the going rate, but sometimes offers discounts to students he’s had for years. The minimum time for hire is two hours; anything less wouldn’t be worth it. He has to put on an appropriate outfit (slacks and a dress shirt), drive to the dance studios, and by the end of the first hour he’s just getting started. It doesn’t matter to him if more than one woman wants to split the time.
“What difference does it make, one woman or two?” my uncle said. “I’m dancing for two hours all the same.”
On the second-to-last Sunday morning in January, I discovered what these dance halls looked like inside. A few hours before sunrise, I was still awake, in my living room in New York, tapping on my laptop keyboard as I worked on my novel. After finishing a scene, I stopped writing. My post-writing reward was the news. Initially benumbed to headlines of another mass shooting, I jolted to attention when the words “Lunar New Year” leapt out at me. Then “Monterey Park.” Monterey Park is where my aunt lives, where we attended my grandmother’s Chinese watercolor-painting exhibitions, where I took piano and math lessons. Monterey Park is a place where signs in Chinese adorn shops and restaurants, and where it’s easier to find a bowl of knife-cut noodle soup than a hot dog.
The recent past flooded the present: the Atlanta shootings; attacks on elderly Asian women in Times Square, Yonkers, Chinatown; running down Fourteenth Street on New Year’s Eve while a screaming man with flowing brown hair chased me, his hands reaching out to strike. Marching to Foley Square in the snow-crusted streets, stomping extra hard to force some blood into my numb feet, shouting “Stop Asian hate!” as if the loudness of my voice could project into all the ears of America. It has been more than two years since I’ve ridden the subway. I don’t have plans to descend onto the platform anytime soon—or maybe ever again.
I went to bed, my heart pounding.
When I awoke later on Sunday, I searched for updates on the mass shooting. The gunman was Asian. I felt relief, which is a strange way to feel about such news, but it meant that I wouldn’t have to feel panicked that my body might be hunted in the streets. I kept reading. A Lunar New Year’s celebration at Star Ballroom Dance Studio. A second location where someone disarmed a gunman, perhaps the same one? It was also a dance studio. Lai Lai Ballroom and Studio.
It was at this point that my chest seized. I know Lai Lai. It is where my mother went to dance when I was young. It is where my uncle still dances and teaches ballroom dance to older Chinese immigrants.
I texted my mother: “Did you hear about the shooting in Monterey Park?” Yes, she told me. My uncle was supposed to go to Star Ballroom that night, but because he already celebrated Lunar New Year’s Eve the week before at Lai Lai, he decided to stay home. At that time, the news was reporting that ten people had been killed (the eventual total would be eleven) and that the shooter was still at large. It emerged that one person fought off the shooter at Lai Lai: Brandon Tsay, the twenty-six-year-old grandson of the ballroom’s founders, ripped the gun from the shooter’s hands and forced him to leave. Tsay saved many lives that night.
Throughout the day, I checked in with my mother about my uncle. It turned out that he knew Ming Wei Ma, who formerly co-owned Star Ballroom and then ran it. He appeared to be the first person shot inside the dance hall. My mother also knew Ma, though it had been a decade or more since she’d seen him. When the media published his photo, she recognized him immediately. She had met him at the karaoke parlor in the back room of Star. Ma loved to sing karaoke, and he would also have karaoke parties at his house in Monterey Park, where, for a few dollars, people sang and socialized. She had attended a few of those, too, and remembered him as a smart businessman who turned what he loved—karaoke and ballroom dancing—into ways to support himself and his family.
When I called my uncle a few days after the shooting, he told me that he knew the gunman, too. Andy, my uncle called him. Andy had taken a lot of dance lessons at the ballroom studios over the years. He was a good dancer. He wasn’t a professional instructor, nor was he hired by the hour, like my uncle, but he occasionally gave informal lessons.
Andy was quiet and kept to himself, my uncle said. But these are the kinds of people who can be very dangerous, he added, people who keep everything tightly held in. “They keep their problems locked inside their hearts and don’t reveal them to anyone. Then they lose it.” Andy wasn’t the aggressive type. He was respectful, my uncle remembered.
Respectful turned out to be the opposite of what Andy was.
News reports said that the shooter met his ex-wife at the ballroom studios, where they both danced. The motive for his actions is still unknown.
“I haven’t seen this guy in many years,” my uncle said. “For a time, it seemed as though he had disappeared.”
My uncle recognized a couple of the victims, though he could not name them. Like so many other Asian seniors, they had frequented the studio over the years and become familiar faces in the scene. The names of the dead later appeared on the news. They were Valentino Marcos Alvero, sixty-eight; Hongying Jian, sixty-two; Yu Lun Kao, seventy-two; LiLan Li, sixty-three; Ming Wei Ma, seventy-two; Mymy Nhan, sixty-five; Muoi Dai Ung, sixty-seven; Chia Ling Yau, seventy-six; Wen Tau Yu, sixty-four; Xiujuan Yu, fifty-seven; and Diana Man Ling Tom, seventy.
I spoke to Evie Quinones, who had given Kao dance lessons at her studio, in Pomona. “At first, he was very shy,” Quinones said. “He wouldn’t talk much. He would take the dance lesson, pay for his class, and then go. He became a regular. He would come to the classes more often. I would see him talking to the other guys and laughing a little bit more, and I knew he was having a good time. He was very smart, very gentle when he danced. He would learn everything so fast. He was a gentleman, such a great soul.”
Quinones now tells her students that if they feel intimidated by their partners or someone else, or if they suspect that their life is in danger in any way, they should inform her immediately. Star Ballroom remains closed, but Lai Lai has resumed private and group dance lessons; afternoon tea dances and evening dances are back on the schedule as well.
My uncle is taking a break from dancing. “I need a rest,” he said, but he plans on returning to Lai Lai. He will continue dancing after a period of reflection, and cha-cha and samba as he has for over two decades.
My mother only did ballroom dancing for a short time. Her dissatisfaction with the ballroom-dance scene compelled her to join the Spellbinders, a square-dancing troupe in South Pasadena, where I grew up. The Spellbinders caused me a lot of embarrassment as an adolescent. They danced at the opening of the Gold Line metro station, in plain sight of the coffee shop where I hung out with friends after school. On the Fourth of July, the Spellbinders danced down Mission Street, from one end of the city to the other, in the Independence Day parade. My mother twirled in homemade circle skirts with American flag patterns and matching petticoats that peeked out like lingerie. Crimson-cheeked, she would flounce over to me, her jaunty neckerchief bouncing against her collarbone, and kiss me, her face sweaty. I’d grimace, wiping my cheek with a pronounced “eeeww.” The coup de grâce came when a kid in junior high found me during the parade and said, “I saw your mom dancing.”
As self-conscious as I was about my mother’s dancing, it was the only time when her osteoporotic knees didn’t hurt and her asthma didn’t flare up. She felt happy and free. There was complete absorption in dance, her feet stepping and turning, arms linked to other seniors who spun and hopped to the caller’s instructions. Seen from above, square dancing is kaleidoscopic, those sassy underskirts expanding and contracting in swirling synchronicity.
The Spellbinders represented something about South Pasadena, a small city whose streets are lined with Craftsman houses and a soda fountain where I used to buy floral violet candies. They situated my mother within the wholesome American tradition that she perhaps imagined when she was young in Taiwan. Square dancing not only provided a respite from physical pain, and gave her a sense of joy and community, and friends to share meals with—it marked an arrival of sorts.
Now, realizing how significant dancing was for my mother, I feel ashamed that I ever wished she hadn’t square-danced. I wish that she still danced the way that she used to—with her friends, at municipal celebrations and commemorative events, surrounded by audiences admiring her festive handsewn outfits, applauding for her. I don’t recall exactly when this shift in my perspective occurred, but it likely coincided with that hazy period following the transition from adolescence to adulthood, when you no longer feel so much embarrassment about all the things your parents once did. First comes acceptance, then pride, then longing for the past, and, finally, regret.
On humid summer nights, I love hanging out at the Sara D. Roosevelt Park Track in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Dance music blares from multiple stereos as groups of mostly middle-aged and elderly Chinese women cross-step to the right, turn, and skip left a few feet, arms rising and dipping, shadowing one another’s moves on beat. Sometimes, there is one group of dancers. On the best nights, there are three or more. I have joined these groups on occasion, able to intuit the sidesteps and arm sweeps after years on the cheerleading squad in high school.
The feeling of dancing is always transportive for me. It is the same flow state that my mother once occupied when she square danced. When I dance, I am a fourteen-year-old cheerleader at football games again. I am an eighteen-year-old raver at Prince’s old club, Glam Slam, in downtown L.A. I am on the dance floor at my friend’s wedding in the desert at sunset with everyone I have ever loved. It is this ability to be absolutely present in my body, part of a social collective—intuitive and comical, performative and private, euphoric and tireless—that makes dance such a singular experience. The liminal space of dance makes me forget where I am and, in a sense, who I am (a person with multiple deadlines—and now my own physical injuries). I am one body, and I am a collective body. I am my own body throughout time. Perhaps, too, I am also my mother’s body, in a flow state, free from pain.
The partygoers at Star Ballroom were doing a synchronized dance just before the shooter came in. Watching a video of the last moments of the synergy and ebullience on the dance floor, my body recognizes the rhythm of the song, the way the collective body sways and turns on the beat as people dance in front of a mirror, with lights swirling around the room. There are colorful decorations, women in dresses and curled hair, men in slacks and dance shoes, people who look like my uncle and my mother. Many of the partygoers wear red shirts and dresses. The auspicious color symbolizes prosperity, believed to bring good luck and ward off evil spirits when worn during the Lunar New Year. ♦