For my Chinese American parents, ballroom dancing brought fun, comfort and a sense of belonging

The importance of ballroom culture to many senior Asian Americans brings the Monterey Park tragedy into focus

Published January 28, 2023 11:00AM (EST)

Dance partners practicing in their formal dance clothes (Getty Images/electravk)
Dance partners practicing in their formal dance clothes (Getty Images/electravk)

I woke up last Sunday to the news of the shooting in Monterey Park, and my head spun — this was a predominantly Asian American community. In fact, my parents had frequented the Lai Lai Ballroom and Studio in nearby Alhambra. On my phone, I discovered the shooter had attempted to attack dancers at the Lai Lai after he had killed 11 people at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio, but the owner's grandson had wrestled his gun away from him.  

In a culture where being reserved and stoic is often revered, many Chinese feel dancing is an appropriate creative outlet.

Making matters worse, the attack happened on the eve of Lunar New Year, the most important holiday to many Chinese – and other Asian diaspora – people worldwide. It's a time for joyful family gatherings, special foods and traditional dances and musical performances at festivals and parades. 

The night before, my husband and I had gathered with other members of our large Chinese American church, which is 45 minutes away from these attacks. Those of us who'd gathered were of the same age as most of those who had been at the dance studios — these were our peers. 

In the extensive media coverage ensuing over the following days — often overlooked was the compounding tragedy. Surely the shooter had understood this, that he was striking at the heart of a close-knit community to which he had belonged. Specifically, in Southern California, these types of dance studios play a central role in fostering and maintaining community in the Asian American diaspora. Also, they are frequented by revered older members of the community who comprised all of the shooter's victims. 

In a culture where being reserved and stoic is often revered, many Chinese feel dancing is an appropriate creative outlet. Fifty million people in China practice ballroom dancing and thousands compete in local and national competitions. Ballroom dancing appeals to seniors because it is a low-impact exercise where agility, technique and flexibility are more important than strength. For older adults, challenging oneself mentally by learning new dance combinations and lessening the chance of falls while socializing adds to this hobby's appeal. 

These studios regularly hold parties, karaoke nights and showcases where students and patrons perform. Monterey Park is 66% Asian with 54% foreign-born. Alhambra is 50% Asian. 

Feeling safe and among their own, [my parents] made many friends there while polishing off their tango and quickstep.

As a child, I'd sit on the steps of our Detroit suburban home and watch my parents and their friends, fellow members of the Chinese diaspora, waltz, rumba and foxtrot the night away. For my research scientist father, dancing was a release from the frustration of hitting the bamboo ceiling at his automotive supplier position. It was a time to speak Chinese, exercise and have fun. 

Each year, as the Lunar New Year approached, our house bustled with activity. I'd wear a Chinese quilted jacket and my mother would don a traditional Chinese qipao. She piled lucky new year cakes and fragrant steamed dumplings on our dining table. My brother and I would bow three times from our waist before our grandma, who gave us each a lucky red envelope filled with five dollars. We wouldn't dare clean on this auspicious day because we feared sweeping away good luck for the coming year.

After my brother, and then my husband and I moved to Los Angeles, my parents visited us semi-annually. I remember the first time we took them to Monterey Park. They marveled at the number of Chinese restaurants and grocery stores dotting Garvey Street and Atlantic Boulevard. They felt so comfortable. My brother held his wedding rehearsal dinner at NBC Seafood, a popular area restaurant for celebrations large and small.

In their 70s, my parents moved to the area to be closer to their children and six grandchildren. Once settled, they started going to dance studios and were regulars at Lai Lai. Feeling safe and among their own, they made many friends there while polishing off their tango and quickstep. My mother insisted she was the better dancer, much to my father's annoyance. She chafed at a man "leading" on and off the dance floor.  

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One Saturday, the entire extended family gathered for a sumptuous dinner at a Monterey Park restaurant. My parents were experts at ordering the perfect combination of dishes. It also helped that they could read the daily specials, written only in Chinese on a whiteboard. Afterward, we went to Lai Lai Ballroom for a dance exhibit. Dad, a rare 6-foot-tall Chinese man for his time, looked dapper in a black suit. Mom wore a flowing pink chiffon dress, all the better to twirl as she spun and dipped on the wooden floor. She cherished her silver ballroom dancing shoes and always kept them polished. 

The Year of the Rabbit, which people had gathered to celebrate, ironically symbolizes longevity and peace. I only hope the rest of this year, unlike the past few years, which have been marked by an increase in violence directed at Asian Americans, will bring forth the promise of the Year of the Rabbit. In the meantime, we grieve. Six women and five men were slaughtered wearing their dancing shoes. I hope and pray they are dancing in heaven. 

By Yvonne Liu

Yvonne Liu is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. She is writing a memoir about mental health, childhood trauma and adoption. Her writing has been featured in the New York Times, Newsweek, HuffPost and elsewhere. You can follow her on Twitter at @yvonneliuwriter or read her work at

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Asian American Ballroom Dancing Chinese American Commentary Monterey Park