The Star Ballroom Dance Studio sits just off of bustling Garvey Avenue in Monterey Park, overshadowed by TS Emporium, a supermarket for medicinal herbs and specialty foods that dominates the block.
A sign just beneath the emporium’s logo beckons: “Star Dance … Tango, Waltz, ChaCha, Salsa,” with a big, red arrow pointing the way to the back.
If you aren’t a regular, it might be difficult knowing how to get in.
Dancers, for years, have gone through a gate that overhead has two bright-red Chinese characters for “dance” and “star” — marking the ballroom’s front entrance, French doors under a green and white canopy.
Inside is where dancers have come for fun, to strut their stuff, and to enjoy one another’s company. The Star Ballroom is also where a gunman late last Saturday, Jan. 21, killed 11 adults, ages 57 to 76.
Newcomers and old hands alike have come here to learn dances from around the world: There was ballroom dancing, of course, but also different European and Latin American styles as well. Traditional dances representing cultures from across East and Southeast Asia have also been offered.
“We learned qipao dancing,” a traditional form of Chinese dance, said Qiang Bjornbak, a longtime Monterey Park attorney. “We learned Cambodian dancing, too. And I even started practicing Korean dancing.”
She said the dance hall has created tight community bonds, a place for shared experiences learning about different cultures in this diverse city, whether or not the dancers spoke the same language.
“(The Star Ballroom) had great instructors who taught people about all these different kinds of dance,” Bjornbak said. “This was more than entertainment — it’s being part of something. You’re part of the community.”
Regulars have met with old friends while showing off their moves on the dance floor.
Bjornbak said she hasn’t been a regular, but has taken lessons at the Star Ballroom occasionally. She said the patrons have tended to be older, many of them immigrants. But younger folks and children have been welcome, too.
“This was a family place,” she said.
Just last week, Paul Cao, a regular Star Ballroom dancer, saw his friend MyMy Nhan, one of those killed.
A regular at the Monterey Park studio as well as the Lai Lai Ballroom in Alhambra — where authorities say a hero just after the havoc at the Star Ballroom wrestled away a gun from the suspect — Cao has been part of the ballroom dance community for well over a decade. He got to know Nhan.
In fact, it was Nhan who’d introduced him to the studio while taking classes at the Rosemead Center. He said she had a knack for picking up new moves while in a dance group.
“In group, you have to be able to catch it,” he said of the pace of group lessons. “And she danced very well.”
For the last year, Elizabeth Yang has learned to waltz, fox trot, tango and cha-cha at the Star Ballroom. For her, taking classes at the dance studio where her mother also used to go has offered an opportunity to get in some exercise while socializing.
At 40, Yang is one of the younger students; most are in their 50s or 60s. But Yang said the group immediately welcomed her. The owner has allowed Yang to bring along her 13-year-old daughter.
The majority of the students are “ just looking for some type of fun recreation,” Yang said, though there have also been competitive dancers who train there.
“It was for everyone,” Yang said. “The teachers, they taught us at a very good pace. It wasn’t that fast. Beginners could keep up. And it wasn’t so simple that advanced dancers would be bored.
“It’s like a hub for people to get together,” she said. “Everyone who loves ballroom dancing would come here and congregate.”
Star Ballroom also has offered karaoke hours and party-room rentals. There have been kids’ lessons, a hip hop event, social dances.
“They have a good karaoke system,” said Chester Chong, chairman of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles. “Sometimes, they have a live band.”
Will the mass shooting destroy the treasured dance hall? Will people still go to the dance studio after what has happened?
“Time will tell,” reflected Monterey Park’s mayor, Henry Lo. “We don’t know the answer.”
Maria Liang, the Star Ballroom’s sole owner for the past seven years, has not been back inside yet.
She feels the community’s support from the memorial just outside the dance hall, with people — including strangers — leaving flowers and messages each day. It is unclear if Liang will reopen the Star Ballroom — she said she could not think that far ahead.
“Personally, just from seeing this, it’s a nightmare to me,” she said on Friday. “My best friends, they all died there. So tragic. … I think it will (weigh) on me for my lifetime. … I still can’t go back to work.”