The owner of Star Ballroom Dance Studio, the site of the horrific mass shooting that cost 11 dancers their lives earlier this year, confirmed this week that she has “almost” made up her mind that she won’t reopen the business.
“I don’t think I want to reopen again,” said owner Maria Liang on Wednesday, May 24. “It’s still difficult to return to the same spot to work.”
Liang, who took over the Monterey Park dance studio in 2013, would be open to offers from potential buyers, but said that no one so far has approached her about taking over the business.
Both Liang and many in the community lamented the likely closure of what had been a longtime fixture in the typically quiet city.
Star Ballroom Dance Studio, which opened on West Garvey Avenue in 1990, offered a variety of dance lessons with renowned professional instructors. It also served as a social hub, particularly for immigrants seeking to form friendships through dance lessons and community events for over two decades.
But on Jan. 21, the start of the Lunar New Year, that community safe haven was shattered when a lone shooter entered and opened fire in the studio with seemingly no motive. Eleven elderly dancers — My My Nhan, LiLan Li, Xiujuan Yu, Muoi Dai Ung, Hongying Jian, Yu-Lun Kao, Chia Ling Yau, Valentino Marcos Alvero, Wen-Tau Yu, Diana Man Ling Tom, and Ming Wei Ma, the studio’s original owner — were killed inside.
The gunman, Huu Can Tran, 72, of Hemet, would minutes later enter the nearby Lai Lai Ballroom & Dance Studio in Alhambra, where a second attack was thwarted. He would ultimately flee to Torrance, where he shot and killed himself the next day.
In the aftermath, the city rallied to support its community in an ongoing recovery effort. Asian Americans Advancing Justice raised over $1 million for victims of the tragedy, and is holding regular bystander intervention trainings.
A Monterey Park Community Fund is collecting donations to foster connectivity and safety. Most recently, a portion of the $60,000 currently raised will be donated to those who witnessed the traumatic events. Federal, state and local grants and loans were created to support surrounding local businesses. The Chinatown Service Center set up drop-in counseling at the Monterey Park Bruggemeyer Library. And a number of Asian American organizations nationwide have stepped up to provide in-language mental health services to those in need.
Still, these communal efforts may not be enough to save the beloved studio.
Liang, who was personal friends with many of the victims who died, and whose brother was among nine others injured during the Jan. 21 shooting, said that she is slowly finding ways to move forward with the support of friends and family.
But, she admits, “it’s hard to get rid of all these bad memories.”
About a month after the shooting, Liang issued nearly 300 refund checks — valued at more than $80,000 — to students who had prepaid for group classes or access to the dance studio, she said.
Liang added that perhaps one day she’ll feel strong enough to embrace one of her passions again, but months after the tragedy, that day hasn’t come.
“I haven’t returned to dancing. My teachers, they would like me to return to other studios … but I haven’t gone back to the dance floor,” she said. “It’s too painful – I just don’t want to remember the bad things.”
A few miles away, the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio hosted an open community dance on Saturday, May 20, aiming to foster joy and healing in the wake of tragedy.
Peter Chou, who danced at both Lai Lai and Star Ballroom, attended and said that ex-pats like himself would have one fewer place to mingle after Star Dance shuts down for good.
“When you come here, you feel as if you have returned to your hometown,” said Chou, 76, who came to the U.S. from Taiwan and has been dancing for more than 10 years. “People here all come from similar backgrounds, so there’s a sense of belonging.”
Spending time at the dance studio offers Chou and others a chance to exercise, Chou said, but it also serves as a gathering place for people who share the same culture, language and traditions. Chou hopes that another dance studio will open up in the area soon, to bring “light and hope” to the community.
Kristenne Reidy, the daughter of Valentino Alvero, one of the victims, said she also heard that Star Dance may close for good.
“It’s very sad to see that, but I love to see Lai Lai thriving. My dad was a weekly dancer here at Lai Lai , too. He goes to all the dance halls,” she said.
Alvero was an avid dancer who frequented local dance venues and events. Reidy believes those who love to dance, like her dad, will continue to find a way to keep their passion alive.
Lai Lai studio instructor Mike Huang has spent more than 30 years in the Asian dance community.
“For people who love to dance, they will find it hard to quit,” said Huang, 68.
Monterey Park Mayor Pro Tem Thomas Wong was “saddened” to hear of the possible closure “after providing a service and gathering space for so many in our community for so many years.”
“Monterey Park is resilient, and we are committed to working to build other safe spaces for our community to come together for healing, dancing and celebration,” Wong said.
Kevin Leung is the head instructor of a traditional Chinese martial arts school that used the Star Ballroom Dance Studio for classes for over eight years. In between ballroom lessons, music classes and social events at the studio, the Siu Lum Pai Kung Fu Association held its martial arts classes and lion dance rehearsals for kids and adults.
In the weeks following the shooting, Leung said it was important to continue having classes in a nearby park, for the younger students to feel a sense of “normalcy” even without their traditional practice space. Though Leung hoped the studio would eventually reopen, he understood the owner’s position.
Leung said that he spoke with Maria Liang “a few months ago,” and even then she was unsure about the studio’s future after the tragedy. He remembered the many instructors who helped Liang operate Star Dance – the “safe, communal place” it was for patrons – and lamented its closure.
“It’s obviously bittersweet, losing our home at Star Dance. We were really hoping that we’d be able to reopen again,” Leung said. “It would be a nice, strong statement for the community. Everyday I drive past it now, and they already took down the sign and have the ‘For Rent’ sign… it’s still on everybody’s mind; what happened there.”
Leung has since moved his kung fu school inside a Chinese language school in the neighborhood. He remains hopeful that a Monterey Park dance studio serving the community, particularly Asian and immigrant seniors, will get to open again and “fill that void.”
He noted the banner stretching across Garfield Avenue: “We Dance United.”
“It sends the message that, no matter what, we’re still strong as a community.”
Source: Orange County Register
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