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Checking in on Monterey Park's ballroom community a year after a gunman killed 11


Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of one of California's deadliest mass shootings. A gunman attacked a ballroom dance studio in Monterey Park, an Asian-majority city several miles east of Los Angeles. Eleven people were killed, devastating a community of older ballroom dancers, many of whom are from Taiwan, China, Thailand and Vietnam. Josie Huang of member station LAist follows up on their year of recovery.

JOSIE HUANG, BYLINE: On the night of January 21, a gunman named Huu Can Tran showed up at the Star Dance Ballroom Studio and fired on a crowd celebrating the Lunar New Year. Lloyd Gock sought cover as his friends fell around him.

LLOYD GOCK: I was about 10 feet away from the shooter. I just hide under the table so the bullets just went by me.

HUANG: But the gunman wasn't done. He drove a few miles to Alhambra, where there was another popular ballroom called Lai Lai. It was kind of a sister studio that the same crowd frequented. Brandon Tsay, whose family owns the studio, was closing up when he saw the shooter enter the lobby with a gun.

BRANDON TSAY: Within the first three seconds, I processed that I must do something to save everybody's lives.

HUANG: Tsay wrestled the gun away from the shooter, who took off. Tran was found dead the next day of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He'd been part of the local ballroom dance scene, but police still have not specified a motive. As the community held vigils and politicians called for stricter gun control in the wake of the shooting, survivors found solace in one another. Lloyd Gock says a group of about 40 of them messaged over WeChat and shared meals and tears.

GOCK: 'Cause our life is never the same, never the same since that day.

HUANG: The Star Dance Ballroom Studio, where the shooting took place, closed permanently. The local dance community had been so traumatized that Brandon Tsay didn't think they'd come back and dance at Lai Lai. Some instructors have left, taking students with them, but Tsay says most folks have returned.

TSAY: I was so glad that they came back with a big smile on their faces. And that, in itself, was therapy because just getting connected to one another again at a physical location and recounting the situation, it was quite therapeutic for everybody.

HUANG: Tsay says he wants the dance studio to continue to be a place of healing. As the shooting's anniversary approached, Lai Lai hosted a community event where they offered free dance lessons.


UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR: One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. Relax your hips.

HUANG: Tsay also invited mental health clinicians to that event. Among them - Sheila Wu, who directs mental health centers in LA County catering to the Asian community.

SHEILA WU: For people to come back to the location of what happened, I think it will trigger certain emotions on - in some.

HUANG: But Wu says the event also provided a chance to offer counseling to an older immigrant crowd that's resistant to seeking help. She says that, for many immigrants, there's this mentality of...

WU: We have to be strong. We have to be resilient, and we cannot be weak 'cause we have to succeed, right?

HUANG: Some survivors, like Lloyd Gock, have been receptive to counseling, but he says what has helped him cope with his trauma the most has been returning to the dance floor.

GOCK: Pretty much you don't have to think about anything, you know? You just concentrate on the next turn with your partner. All your worries goes away for that, you know, few minutes that you're dancing.

HUANG: Gock approaches fellow survivor Hattie Pang, who's wearing a flowy miniskirt and sparkly headband. She started dancing again a few months after the shooting. She's now back to coaxing friends to dance the waltz, her favorite.

HATTIE PENG: (Speaking Mandarin).

HUANG: (Speaking Mandarin), she says in Mandarin, meaning, come, come - same words as the name of the studio. And Gock does. Peng takes his hand, and they dip and weave across the floor.

For NPR News, I'm Josie Huang in Alhambra. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Josie Huang