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‘It’s going to take some time’: Alhambra’s Lai Lai Ballroom seeks to buoy ‘healing process’ after shooting

Just a handful of couples remained swaying underneath darkened and purple hued overhead lights by the end of Friday afternoon’s tea dance, leaving most of the floor at Lai Lai Ballroom and Studio empty and exposed.

At one time, only a few years ago, between 70 and 100 seniors from across the San Gabriel Valley’s diverse Asian diaspora would pack the dance floor for hours at the casual social event only to return in the evening for the night dance party.

Now just two weeks since the massacre at Star Ballroom Dance Studio in nearby Monterey Park and the thwarted shooting at Lai Lai, the business has restarted some of its programming but still struggles to get back to business as usual.

Maksym Kapitanchuk, left, gives Gloria Thai of San Gabriel dance lessons at the Lai Lai Ballroom and Studio in Alhambra on Friday, February 3, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)
Maksym Kapitanchuk, left, gives Gloria Thai of San Gabriel dance lessons at the Lai Lai Ballroom and Studio in Alhambra on Friday, February 3, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Following the Jan. 21 shooting, which killed 11 people and injured nine others, Lai Lai, which translated roughly to “come in,” or “welcome,” closed its doors for one week. The following Sunday it resumed its open floor time — instructors rent out the space for classes in the morning — and its afternoon tea dance, a three-hour social dance mixing a variety of music and styles.

Brenda Tsay, who runs the business with her brother and father, said they wanted to reopen quickly, partly out of a perceived responsibility to the dance community the studio cultivated over its 30 years as a “mother studio” to so many dancers. Particularly with the future of the Star Dance still up in the air, she wanted to make sure their overlapping clients still had a home.

“Dancing is a really important part of their lives, especially because a lot of them are older, they’re retired and maybe their kids are starting their own lives,” Tsay said. “They don’t have much to do but invest in themselves and use the time they have left on Earth to enjoy themselves, and dancing is how they do that.”

Liya Kazbekova taught Latin American dance in 15- to 30-people groups at Lai Lai and Star Dance for the last four years, and said most of her clients at both studios were regulars that became like family. Originally from Kazakhstan, she said the dance community was small and close-knit, and the studios were a second home for many immigrants.

She was traveling in England when she heard the news.

“It was like somebody slipped into my home and killed my family,” Kazbekova said.

Since Lai Lai reopened, Kazbekova resumed private classes for those ready to return, and hopes it can offer a path to healing the way dance has done for her.

“When the music is on and you’re focusing on your movements, when you’re focusing on how to make them work with the music, you’re fully, fully present,” she said. “There is no room for thinking of the past or future, it’s like you’re meditating in the movement. And of course, it makes people forget about sad moments, forget about their own problems, whatever was happening in their lives. That’s what makes dancing a healing process.”



Lai Lai will continue its road to a full reopening next week when their Night Dance Party events, which the gunman walked into last month, return for the first time starting Feb. 10.

Tsay said dances will be something of a test run, as she’s unsure how many people would want to return for that particular event, though she said she has been getting calls about it. The dances run Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights from 8:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.

Part of her motivation to reopen was also financial, both for the family business and the instructors who depend on teaching their classes to pay bills. Tsay said she hopes starting the night dance again will be “worth it,” and is exploring new ways to market the business.

“We didn’t used to really have to think of this because there was such a loyal customer base,” she said. “People are not coming back automatically, they may not ever come back. A lot of customers are still scared, which is understandable but either way it’s going to take some time.”

When Kazbekova first started teaching in the area, she was shocked to see how many seniors appeared to just start living life for themselves in their 50s, when life was over in her culture.

“They’re really going all in with their life, enjoying it dancing, having fun, traveling, drinking coffee with their friends” she said. “For me, it was kind of surreal because I grew up in a society where my grandma, after she turned 60, she was saying that I’m going to die tomorrow.”

It’s that attitude embracing life that give Kazbekova hope that their community can move forward and heal together.

“It’s not easy of course, it’s hard, but I’m glad to see that people are kind of coming back to life and don’t live in the past,” she said. “Dancing is my life. I’ve been dancing through the worst and best times in my life and whatever happens, I just learned that I gotta keep going, whatever is happening.”

Source: Orange County Register

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