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At an Alhambra ballroom dance studio, a community dance brings much-needed healing

A special community dance was held at the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra, where Brandon Tsay disarmed a mass shooter in January inside of his family’s dance studio, on Saturday, May 20, 2023. The event was coordinated between Tsay and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California. (Photo by Trevor Stamp, Contributing Photographer)

Brandon Tsay, speaks during an event outside of Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra, where in January, he disarmed a mass shooter who already killed 11 people, on Saturday, May 20, 2023. The event was coordinated between Tsay and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California. (Photo by Trevor Stamp, Contributing Photographer)

A special community dance was held at the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra, where Brandon Tsay disarmed a mass shooter in January inside of his family’s dance studio, on Saturday, May 20, 2023. The event was coordinated between Tsay and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California. (Photo by Trevor Stamp, Contributing Photographer)

A special community dance was held at the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra, where Brandon Tsay disarmed a mass shooter in January inside of his family’s dance studio, on Saturday, May 20, 2023. The event was coordinated between Tsay and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California. (Photo by Trevor Stamp, Contributing Photographer)

A special community dance was held at the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra, where Brandon Tsay disarmed a mass shooter in January inside of his family’s dance studio, on Saturday, May 20, 2023. The event was coordinated between Tsay and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California. (Photo by Trevor Stamp, Contributing Photographer)

Lloyd Gock, 67, of Alhambra, right, who survived the mass shooting at Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, dances with Karen Hahn, 62, of Pasadena during a special community dance at the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra, where Brandon Tsay disarmed the same shooter in January inside of his family’s dance studio, on Saturday, May 20, 2023. The event was coordinated between Tsay and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California. (Photo by Trevor Stamp, Contributing Photographer)

A special community dance was held at the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra, where Brandon Tsay disarmed a mass shooter in January inside of his family’s dance studio, on Saturday, May 20, 2023. The event was coordinated between Tsay and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California. (Photo by Trevor Stamp, Contributing Photographer)

A special community dance was held at the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra, where Brandon Tsay disarmed a mass shooter in January inside of his family’s dance studio, on Saturday, May 20, 2023. The event was coordinated between Tsay and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California. (Photo by Trevor Stamp, Contributing Photographer)

Paul, left, and Millie Cao perform during a special community dance at the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra, where Brandon Tsay disarmed a mass shooter in January inside of his family’s dance studio, on Saturday, May 20, 2023. The event was coordinated between Tsay and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California. (Photo by Trevor Stamp, Contributing Photographer)

Lloyd Gock, 67, of Alhambra, right, who survived the mass shooting at Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, dances with Karen Hahn, 62, of Pasadena during a special community dance at the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra, where Brandon Tsay disarmed the same shooter in January inside of his family’s dance studio, on Saturday, May 20, 2023. The event was coordinated between Tsay and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California. (Photo by Trevor Stamp, Contributing Photographer)

Charmeen Wing, left, and Pavel Balykin perform during a special community dance at the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra, where Brandon Tsay disarmed a mass shooter in January inside of his family’s dance studio, on Saturday, May 20, 2023. The event was coordinated between Tsay and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California. (Photo by Trevor Stamp, Contributing Photographer)

Lloyd Gock, 67, of Alhambra, left, who survived the mass shooting at Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, dances with Karen Hahn, 62, of Pasadena during a special community dance at the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra, where Brandon Tsay disarmed the same shooter in January inside of his family’s dance studio, on Saturday, May 20, 2023. The event was coordinated between Tsay and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California. (Photo by Trevor Stamp, Contributing Photographer)

Millie, left, and Paul Ca0 perform during a special community dance at the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra, where Brandon Tsay disarmed a mass shooter in January inside of his family’s dance studio, on Saturday, May 20, 2023. The event was coordinated between Tsay and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California. (Photo by Trevor Stamp, Contributing Photographer)

Kristi Semochko, left, and Vlad Ogurtsov perform during a special community dance at the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra, where Brandon Tsay disarmed a mass shooter in January inside of his family’s dance studio, on Saturday, May 20, 2023. The event was coordinated between Tsay and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California. (Photo by Trevor Stamp, Contributing Photographer)

A special community dance was held at the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra, where Brandon Tsay disarmed a mass shooter in January inside of his family’s dance studio, on Saturday, May 20, 2023. The event was coordinated between Tsay and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California. (Photo by Trevor Stamp, Contributing Photographer)

Vlad Ogurtsov, left, and Kristi Semochko perform during a special community dance at the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra, where Brandon Tsay disarmed a mass shooter in January inside of his family’s dance studio, on Saturday, May 20, 2023. The event was coordinated between Tsay and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California. (Photo by Trevor Stamp, Contributing Photographer)

A special community dance was held at the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra, where Brandon Tsay disarmed a mass shooter in January inside of his family’s dance studio, on Saturday, May 20, 2023. The event was coordinated between Tsay and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California. (Photo by Trevor Stamp, Contributing Photographer)

A special community dance was held at the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra, where Brandon Tsay disarmed a mass shooter in January inside of his family’s dance studio, on Saturday, May 20, 2023. The event was coordinated between Tsay and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California. (Photo by Trevor Stamp, Contributing Photographer)

A special community dance was held at the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra, where Brandon Tsay disarmed a mass shooter in January inside of his family’s dance studio, on Saturday, May 20, 2023. The event was coordinated between Tsay and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California. (Photo by Trevor Stamp, Contributing Photographer)

Brandon Tsay, poses for photos during a community dance event outside of Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra, where in January, he disarmed a mass shooter who already killed 11 people, on Saturday, May 20, 2023. The event was coordinated between Tsay and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California. (Photo by Trevor Stamp, Contributing Photographer)

Performers wait to hit the dance floor during a special community dance at the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra, where Brandon Tsay disarmed a mass shooter in January inside of his family’s dance studio, on Saturday, May 20, 2023. The event was coordinated between Tsay and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California. (Photo by Trevor Stamp, Contributing Photographer)

Millie, left, and Paul Ca0 perform during a special community dance at the Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra, where Brandon Tsay disarmed a mass shooter in January inside of his family’s dance studio, on Saturday, May 20, 2023. The event was coordinated between Tsay and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California. (Photo by Trevor Stamp, Contributing Photographer)

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Old friends reconnected. Strangers laughed alongside each other. And on Saturday, May 20, they danced into the night on an Alhambra dance floor.

It was here, at Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio, on the eve of Lunar New Year, where just four months ago a young man wrestled a gun away from a man who just minutes before, in neighboring Monterey Park, had caused what is the deadliest American mass shooting of 2023. It was here where Brandon Tsay foiled a second attack.

On Saturday, hundreds of people gathered at the site to celebrate the Asian American heritage, to laugh, eat and enjoy an evening of dance – where each step is step toward telling a different story, one about a peaceful, tight-knit community that finds smiles, friendship in their beloved ballroom dance halls.

The free community dance — co-hosted by the Tsay family, which owns the studio, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice — was an evening of remembrance during a month devoted to celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage. But it was also an opportunity for people to lean on each other for support in the aftermath of a tragedy that rocked many to their core, according to some of the event’s attendees.

Among those in the crowd were families of victims, as well as people who were physically injured and emotionally scarred by the tragedy.

For some, getting back to the dance floor was not easy thing. For some it was imperative to get back soon.

Charmeen Wing was still reeling from the loss of her mom when Mymy Nhan, a close friend of hers, became the first of 11 people to die at the hands of the gunman at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio on Jan. 21.

“I was so sad. I didn’t really know why I was dancing anymore,” she said.

But upon the invitation of the event organizers, Wing decided to pick up dancing again, something she hasn’t done since 2019.

“This has brought me back to life,” Wing said. “It brought me back to old friends that I haven’t seen in years because of the pandemic, and then obviously new friends.”

Wing, who had trained and danced at both Lai Lai and Star Ballroom for more than 10 years, described the ballroom community as tight-knit and filled with “loving, giving people”.

“What’s so interesting is many people we don’t know, maybe their names, or maybe only know their first names, but we recognize each other from seeing each other in the ballroom for years, and we support each other and we cheer each other,” she said.

Organizers were keenly aware of that solidarity as difficult memories of Jan. 21 linger.

“This event is a celebration of Alhambra and Monterey Park and our communities and our victims and our allies,” said Connie Chung Joe, CEO of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Southern California (AJSOCAL). “It’s also a love letter to ballroom dancing, and to all of the community members here. We want to celebrate the strength and resiliency of our community.”

Two months after the tragedy, President Joe Biden visited Monterey Park to talk with families of the victims and survivors. During that trip, Biden also announced an executive order that seeks to increase background checks to buy guns, encourage safe storage of firearms and address the loss and theft of guns during shipping, among other things.

While national gun reform legislation remains elusive, even after several subsequent American mass shootings, people on Saturday said unity is vital in the road toward recovery.

Rep. Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, said Saturday’s event was an important moment on that road.

“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,” she said. “Of course, we will never forget what happened, but what we can do is unite and be strong before it.”

Lloyd Gock, in attendance on Saturday, echoed that strength.

He was roughly 10 feet away from Huu Can Tran, 72, when Tran opened fire at Star Ballroom Dance Studio. Gock fell to the ground just as bullets flew over his head, he said. Although he survived the incident, it took him a long time to heal mentally because many of those killed were his close friends.

But Gock was determined not to let the gunman deter him from doing what he loves most – dancing. He hit the dance floor barely a week after the shooting because he doesn’t want the gunman “to win”, Gock said.

“I am very happy to see many people are back here dancing again, and hopefully with time, lives will go back to normal again,” Gock said.

The 20 to 30 survivors formed a WeChat group and hold monthly meetings to check on each other, Gock said.

Recently, he noticed that more members of the group have begun to recover from the incident.

Meanwhile, Brandon Tsay, who was also in attendance Saturday, has become an American hero, but also has gone about using his newfound notoriety to call for communities to work together for greater compassion and building bridges to each other as the community heals.

Saturday’s event itself, and the support of Lai Lai in the area, seemed evidence of that compassion.

Brenda Tsay, who runs the Lai Lai dance studio with her brother and father, said many people and organizations have reached out to the family in the aftermath of the shooting. The free event was made possible with the support of neighbors, restaurants and elected officials, she said.

“We think that this community needs it,” she said. “They need a day where they can celebrate being Asian-American. They need a day where they can celebrate their culture. Also, also, they need a day to just enjoy themselves after what happened in January.”

Gock was determined to have many days to enjoy, and to heal.

“If we stop dancing, the gunman will get what he wants, but if we continue to dance, he will no longer be able to terrorize us,” Gock said.

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