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The Joy And Connection Of Ballroom Dance Will Outlast The Monterey Park Shooting

Three Asian women stand in front of a yellow curtain, singing into a karaoke machine.
Pashree "SuperPat" Silapee (left) convenes a Thai social group that met occasionally at Star Dance. The theme for their Jan. 2023 convening at a Burbank restaurant was Lunar New Year.
(Mariana Dale
/
LAist)
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For decades, Star Dance’s spacious hardwood floors drew professionals and amateurs alike to Monterey Park’s downtown.

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The Joy And Connection Of Ballroom Dance Will Outlast The Monterey Park Shooting

Championship dancers rented space by the hour to teach private lessons. New immigrants and longtime community members learned the one-two-three steps of waltz and other ballroom dances from an international cast of instructors.

On weekends, $10-$20 bought a night of dancing and community.

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“When you do the social dance, you know, your mind is out there — nothing but happiness,” said social dancer Pashree Silapee. “That’s good exercise and good meditation.”

Silapee (her friends call her SuperPat) organizes a Thai social group that would meet at the studio.

Violence shattered the community’s celebration of the Lunar New Year this weekend. On Saturday, a man opened fire during one of the studio’s busiest nights of the year, killing 11 people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s and injuring at least nine others. Police report the shooter took his own life in Torrance the next day.

“That place is supposed to be very happy place, it's supposed to be warm,” Silapee said. “How could it happen?”

A Studio Where 'Anyone Is Welcome'

The surrounding community is two-thirds Asian. After World War II Japanese immigrants and citizens moved to the area after being released from West Coast concentration camps. The 1965 Immigration Actopened the door to Taiwanese immigrants, solidifying Monterey Park as the first suburban Chinatown.

U.S. Representative Judy Chu was a city councilmember and later mayor of Monterey Park from 1989 to 1994. She said the studio is a place where immigrants, especially the older generation, can go to settle into a new life.

“They sometimes have very hard lives, but they are able to let the steam out by going to these ballroom dance studios,” Chu said on our newsroom's public affairs show AirTalk. “They find companionship there.”

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Music in Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish, and English is played during any night of social dancing.

“Anyone is welcome to go into those ballrooms and they can feel at home there," said George Uba, a Cal State Northridge professor emeritus and recreational ballroom dancer. He's written about how the Asian American Pacific Islander community has transformed what can be perceived as a hobby of the European upper class.

“The floor is their own, the music is their own, the lyrics are their own, and they feel comfortable there," Uba said.

One of the people killed in the shooting, Ming Wei Ma, helped run Star Dance. He told the Pasadena Star-News in 2016 his goal was to create a gathering place.

“I want to provide an active place for the Asian community of Monterey Park to help prolong their life and improve their health,” Ma said. “Having a place where people from all over the world can come together and communicate through dance is how I can help.”

Ma hired David Duval about a decade ago when the extent of their shared language, English, was “I love you,” “beautiful,” “teacher,” and “showcase.” Duval has since learned to speak Mandarin.

“These are real people who died and who were injured,” Duval said. “It shouldn't be that easy for somebody to do that. It's awful.”

'Fight The Impulse To Close Down And To Isolate'

A mass shooting like the one on Saturday night can often bring fear, insecurity, and vulnerability to the surrounding community, said Lisa Wong, interim director of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.

“Fight the impulse to close down and to isolate,” Wong told my LAist colleague Susanne Whatley. “Reestablish sort of a sense of connectedness to the community to activities, a sense of meaning.”

On Sunday night, Silapee and a few dozen others tried to do just that at a monthly convening of the Healthy, Wealthy Happy of L.A. group. About two dozen people, mostly from Thailand, met up at an otherwise closed Burbank restaurant. In festive costumes, they celebrated birthdays and the Lunar New Year.

“We just go right ahead, looking for the positive — living — always,” Silapee said.

Two pairs of people dance in a restaurant. Two of the women are Asian, as is one man. Another man is white. There are more dancers in the background.
(Mariana Dale
/
LAist)

Dancing 'Keeps Us Together'

Perin Price met her husband Rick after immigrating from Thailand and studying engineering at Youngstown State University in Northeastern Ohio. They’ve been married for nearly five decades and have taken ballroom classes for much of that time.

“I think that's what keeps us together,” Perin said. “We dance together all the time.”

They can dance the standards and even the Dominican Republic’s more sensual bachata.

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“We're not real good at it, but at least we can do it,” Price said. For any song that comes on in a dance hall, they know the steps, she said — “We don't like to sit down.”

On Sunday they waltzed around the small dance floor carved out of the dining room of a Thai restaurant off Burbank Boulevard. Their friends provided the vocals, karaoke style, against instrumental tracks.

Rick’s right arm wrapped around Perin’s back. His left hand clasped hers to create a steady frame, wordlessly communicating each step of the dance.

“Ballroom dancing in general, you get, you get a kind of a connection, not just with your partner, but with other people, because they're there for the same purpose, to enjoy dancing, enjoy one another,” Rick said.

The Prices last visited Star Dance for New Year’s Eve and might have been there Saturday night if not for their monthly meetup Sunday.

It’s unclear if or when the Star Dance Studio will reopen. LAist has not been able to reach the owner.

“It's gonna hurt the society, because we use that as the center of the happiness,” said social organizer Silapee.

No matter what, it will not stop us going dancing ... That's just our life.
— Perin Price

Perin was up late putting the finishing touches on her beaded Chinese-style headpiece when she saw the news of the shooting.

“It hurt my feeling that it happened to that group of people,” Price said. She said after the 2017 mass shooting at a Las Vegas music festival, the couple stopped going to large public events.

“But no matter what, it will not stop us going dancing,” Perin said. “That's just our life.”

Others shared that sentiment.

Saipin Watanasirisuk has been ballroom dancing for about six years and said a night of cha cha cha-ing clears her head after a week working full-time as an accountant.

“It's making me feel young. I think,” Watanasirisuk said with a laugh. “My doctor always says, "You look like 30 and I'm 61.”

Near the end of the night, candles were placed into a lemon raspberry bundt cake, a Tupperware of blueberries and tiny cups of Thai sweet corn pudding to celebrate the January birthdays in the group.

“I believe we shouldn't stop,” Watanasirisuk said. “We should do whatever we want to do … But just to watch out actually, the world now is changing.”

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Corrected January 23, 2023 at 6:49 PM PST
A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Pashree Silapee as Silape.