By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Staff Writer
ALHAMBRA – In a glittering gold dress, Kanon Iwata twirled in a corner of the dance floor, delighting the crowd with an energetic routine to the hit song “Despacito.”
The title of the global hit translates to “slowly,” perhaps a description of how the communities of Monterey Park and Alhambra are recovering from a horrific mass shooting that shattered the joy of this year’s Lunar New Year celebrations.
The Lai Lai Ballroom and Studio on Garfield Avenue would have been the second scene of bloodshed on Jan. 21, if not for the heroism of Brandon Tsay, the 26-year-old who wrested the weapon away from a gunman who had arrived after killing 11 innocent dancers at the nearby Star Studio in Monterey Park minutes earlier. The Lai Lai Ballroom is owned and operated by Tsay’s family, after being founded decades ago by his grandmother, Joyce.
On Saturday, Lai Lai welcomed the community back to the ballroom with a community dance and unity event, organized by Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California, in partnership with the office of L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis.
“This is a love letter to the community,” said Advancing Justice CEO Connie Chung Joe. “We will not be brought down by this act of violence. We will be stronger than ever and move forward.”
The gathering, taking place during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, began in the parking lot behind the studio, with musical performances, information and activity booths, photo opportunities and speeches from a host of local and national dignitaries. In stark contrast to January, this day was filled mostly with song and laughter.
“This is an important occasion to help this community continue to heal,” said Rep. Judy Chu, a Democrat whose congressional district includes Monterey Park. “It’s been four months since the shooting happened, and it was devastating and numbing to this community, but we have been starting to process this. Of course, we will never forget what happened, but what we can do is unite and be strong before it.”
Chu, a former mayor of Monterey Park, also praised the visit by President Joe Biden following the massacre to meet with families of the victims and offer public condolences and a call for action.
“The president’s empathy and outreach was tremendous, and truly helped led this community to a point where they feel like they can dance again,” Chu added.
Several of the speakers called for meaningful gun reform legislation, including Tsay, who has become a national hero for his actions to disarm the 72-year-old gunman, Huu Can Tran, 72, who later took his own life as police surrounded him in Torrance the day after the shooting.
“I want to see the government more active in controlling guns, especially assault weapons,” he insisted. “Why is a person not required to have a permit and training for an AK [assault rifle] when you need one for a driver’s license or to operate heavy equipment? That makes no sense.”
For his bravery, Tsay was invited by the White House to be a guest at Biden’s State of the Union speech in February. He has since been working to promote mental health services and greater community outreach.
The weekend celebration then moved indoors for what spelled a welcome salve for the local dancing community, a close-knit network that has for decades populated ballrooms across this part of the San Gabriel Valley.
Charmeen Wing of Pasadena never considered herself much of a dancer before a friend convinced her to attend a free class. She was instantly hooked and became a regular at Lai Lai and the Star Ballroom for more than a decade.
“This is a chance we have needed, to reconnect and heal for the ballroom community,” said Wing, whose longtime friend My Nhan was one of the victims killed in Monterey Park. Having not danced since before the pandemic, she said Saturday’s event was filled with loving, giving people who truly enjoy sharing time with one another.
“This has brought me back to life, back to old friends I love but haven’t seen in years,” she said.
Dancers, families and guests filed into the ballroom at Lai Lai to find the facility decorated with streamers and balloons, with tables lining the perimeter of the floor. The festivities kicked off with stand-up comedian Joe Wong and a high-octane performance by Kristi Semochko and Vlad Ogurtson from “Dancing with the Stars,” as well as routines from current and former students.
However, the invitation to the dance floor for the masses of regular attendees was the day’s most magical moment, a return to what had been a joyous part of their normal lives before senseless violence shattered bodies and psyches.
Iwata and her twin sister, Manon, have been students at Lai Lai since the age of 7. Now 14, the students at Westridge School in Pasadena were deeply involved in taking action against violence long before the shooting in January, founding the nonprofit Teens 4 Disarmament and Non-proliferation last year.
On Saturday, both took to the floor and entertained the large gathering by dancing with their longtime instructor, Maksym Kapitanchuk.
“Ballroom dance really means interdependence,” Manon explained. “You must learn to allow yourself to be vulnerable and trust each other.”
She added, “When the music turns on and the lights shine, it’s like you’re wearing a crown and the whole room supports you.”
Support was exactly what the event in Alhambra was all about, an act of solidarity and togetherness to help along a community whose hearts were so cruelly broken. Around two dozen survivors of the January shooting have formed an online support group, to check in with each other and hold regular meetings.
“Dancing is a place where you can make lifelong friends. We never imagined this kind of tragedy could affect the Asian community, but it has,” Tsay said. “I hope with the attention I’ve gotten, now that I have a voice, I can use it to promote healing and positivity.”
Photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo