Dancing resumes at studio targeted by Monterey Park gunman

Lucy Wong wasn’t sure at first if it was safe to return to the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio at the Alhambra.

This is where gunman Huu Can Tran, 72, went after fatally shooting 11 at another dance studio in nearby Monterey Park. Authorities believe he was planning another attack at the Alhambra, but a man in the studio wrenched his gun away and Tran fled.

But as more details emerged in the days since Saturday’s shooting, Wong and other Lai Lai guests decided it was important to come back.

“I was more scared when I didn’t know the details,” Wong said. “I was afraid it might be a hate crime against Asians or Chinese, but I found out it’s not – it’s just a crazy person. So I feel OK; I am no longer afraid.”

For her, there was only one message from the violence: “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be intimidated. Just do your normal thing. Go after life. It’s so unpredictable, life is.”

Maksym Kapitanchuk, who has been working as a lecturer at the studio since 2010, called Lai Lai his home.

“All my students are very close to me here. They’re all my family,” he said during a social tea dance at the studio on Friday. “It’s really good to see you back here.”

Kapitanchuk was abroad when he found out about the mass shooting. He expected that Lai Lai and his students would need some time off after coming so close to the tragedy. But a Facebook post Sunday night announced classes would resume on Monday.

“I thought everyone was afraid to come back,” he said. “But no one wanted to stop the class. It’s a very strong community.”

At the end of the week, cha-cha, salsa and ballroom music replaced any sense of dread at the Lai Lai Ballroom.

Ballroom & Studio Lai Lai at the Alhambra.

Ballroom & Studio Lai Lai at the Alhambra.

(Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

Resilience in the face of tragedy has been Lai Lai’s theme since the Monterey Park massacre.

Wong has been going to Lai Lai and studying ballroom dancing for more than 20 years, but she started her classes at Star Ballroom Dance Studio many years ago and only moved to Alhambra Studio when her teacher moved there.

She said she knew two of the people who were in the Star Ballroom the night of the shooting. One safely escaped, but Ming Wei Ma, 72, who ran the studio and whom Wong said she only knew socially, was killed.

Lai-Lai student Coco Jiang also knew Ma, with whom she said she had danced several times and who she described as “a very, very nice guy.”

She said she also recognized the shooter when she saw him on the news.

“A long time ago I saw him here … a few years ago, before COVID-19, at a Sunday party,” Jiang said. “I’ve seen him before but never spoken to him. I knew that face.”

Wong said she still finds the attack baffling given the shooter’s long absence from the dance community. “There are many rumours [about the gunman’s motive]but it’s not trustworthy,” she said.

Her love of dance drove Wong to get back to it and said she wouldn’t let a chance event dictate her life.

“If you’re not a dance enthusiast, you’re probably scared and won’t come for a while,” said the 73-year-old. “I love to dance for people like me, so if I feel safe, I’ll keep dancing. I am not intimidated by an event.”

The weekend’s events served as a reminder to Wong that life is fragile and unpredictable – so much so that the day after filming she began planning trips to places she had always wanted to visit.

Elsewhere in the ballroom on Thursday, dance teacher Liya Kazbekova held a private lesson with a teenager. Kazbekova, who has been an instructor at the studio for four years, was in England at a dance competition with a student when the shooting took place on Saturday.

She said she froze in disbelief upon learning of the tragedy. After digesting the news, her thoughts immediately turned to her boyfriend and dance partner Roman Drobotov, who was scheduled to work at the Star Ballroom on Saturday afternoon.

“My first thought was, ‘Oh my God, he’s here.’ And I started calling him and I think it was the scariest 20 seconds of my life because I didn’t know where he was,” Kazbekova said.

Drobotov probably would have left before the shooting, Kazbekova said. But it turns out he canceled his work day because he was jet lagged and lost his keys, she said.

Kazbekova was relieved to learn her partner was safe, but she staggered again to learn that her boss, Ma from Star Ballroom, had been in the studio that night.

“I didn’t know if he was completely killed or just shot,” she said. “My body was shaking. It’s a shock.”

Kazbekova, 26, said she needed to gather herself quickly because her young student was about to compete.

“I had to pretend I was fine, so it was a tough day because my feelings were somewhere in between,” she said. “I’ve tried to be with her and she’s fine and I’m smiling and supporting her. And at the same time I was on the phone trying to understand what was going on.”

When her student’s competition was over, she said she felt sick as she fully processed the news. She then addressed all of her students from Lai Lai and Star Ballroom. She heard from all but one: Mymy Nhan, who was one of the 11 people shot in Monterey Park.

A portrait of Mymy Nhan, 65.

Mymy Nhan, 65, was one of 11 victims of the Monterey Park mass shooting.

(Nhan and Quan family)

“She used to come to Lai Lai for group classes every Friday. Super sweet woman, one of the nicest,” Kazbekova said.

“She always brought us some snacks like oranges and strawberries after class and her husband Michael was also super bright and a nice person. He always gave us funny comments about the group lessons. … Those are the little moments that stay with you forever, especially when something like this happens.”

Though Saturday’s events still weigh heavily on the community, Kazbekova and some of her students said they are ready to return to dancing.

“They move on with their lives, and it’s not an act of ignorance or selfishness,” she said. “It’s definitely a great act to bring your joy and life back faster. And dancing helps a lot with that.”

A student of Lai Lai, who requested that her name not be used, told the Times that she was in the Star Ballroom on the night of the shooting. She said she danced the jive when she heard the first shot.

“A lot of people thought it was the fake fireworks,” she said. Realizing it was gunshots, she said the only thought that came to mind was, “Oh my god. Do not die. Do not die.”

Detectives are still trying to determine Tran’s movements and motives. Law enforcement sources said he was once a regular on the local ballroom dancing scene and that some sort of jealousy may have been the motive. But LA County Sheriff Robert Luna said at a new conference Wednesday night that investigators had made no connection between Tran and those he killed.

It’s also a mystery why he went to Lai Lai. But Luna said officers believed he was planning a second attack.

Brandon Tsay, whose family owns the Alhambra studio and works at the ticket office, was in the lobby looking into the studio late on Saturday when he heard the front door close followed by a clatter of metal, he said.

“That’s when I turned around and saw there was an Asian man holding a gun,” Tsay told ABC’s Good Morning America. “My first thought was that I was going to die here. That’s it.”

Tsay said the man, whom he didn’t recognize, appeared to be looking around the room “for targets” and “people doing harm.”

The 26-year-old said he lunged at the man with both hands, sparking a fight for control of the gun in the lobby. “I had to take this gun, disarm him or everyone would have died.”

Tsay later told reporters outside his home in San Marino that he didn’t consider himself a hero.

“You have my deepest condolences,” Tsay said, addressing the victims and their families. “I know some of these people personally. You come to us in the studio. It’s a tight-knit community and I hope they can recover from this tragic event.”

On Friday, Tsay visited Lai Lai, where he greeted staff and guests and collected gifts that had been left for him.

Jiang, who resumed her Latin class on Wednesday, rushed to his side, hugged him tightly and thanked him for what he had done.

“I’m not afraid here,” Jiang told the Times. “If it was Star Dance, I’d be scared. But here, [Tsay] has protected us. I am proud of him.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2023-01-27/dancing-again-lai-lai-ballroom-studio-alhambra-monterey-park-shooting-lunar-new-year Dancing resumes at studio targeted by Monterey Park gunman

Alley Einstein

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