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How ballroom dance became a refuge for Asian immigrants

"It was a real opportunity to break from all the professional and familial obligations and do something for themselves and also literally to peacock, to shine,” author SanSan Kwan said about ballroom.
Photo collage: Images of people in ballrooms.
NBC News / Courtesy Irene Ng and Edward Wan

Three days a week, Edward Wan, of Bethesda, Maryland, steals away to a ballroom dance studio so he can glide across the floor in the company of older Chinese immigrants like him. The hobby, he says, is an essential part of his life. It’s how he’s staved off loneliness, and even found love again after his wife’s death, said Wan, who’s newly engaged to his dance partner Ruth Lee. 

Wan, 78, is one of the countless Asian immigrants who’ve regarded ballroom dance as a sort of creative sanctuary, but are now shaken by the two shootings incidents, one of them deadly, that shook California dance halls on Saturday. 

Law enforcement has struggled to identify a motive. But the suspect, Huu Can Tran, 72, who killed 11 in Monterey Park, was a member of the ballroom community, where many in the heavily Asian American area found joy. Former friends told NBC News, however, that Tran was on the outs with those at the venues he visited on his shooting spree.

Ballroom dancers and community experts say that the tragedy is a dark stain on a longheld safe space. Many older Asian immigrants in particular have made ballroom dance an integral part of Asian American culture across the U.S. For decades, those in the community have leaned on the art form not only for its therapeutic qualities, but also as a rare opportunity to prioritize their own happiness after weathering the stress of immigrating to a new country. 

Many now wonder whether this practice of joy has been tainted and fraught for the community. 

“It’s an injustice to ballroom dance. Ballroom dance itself is almost like going to learn poetry or sitting down to meditate,” Wan said. “I would use the word ‘harmony.’”

Just as the two impacted venues, Star Ballroom and Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio, have been, ballrooms across the country are frequented by those in the diaspora, with some studios catering specifically to the demographic. Those with large Asian immigrant clientele often feature international styles of ballroom dancing, and mix in the use of Cantonese or Mandarin tunes so that dancers can groove to something familiar. 

Some of the most common visitors are seniors and retirees, who make dancing a strict part of their routines and attend sessions everywhere from a few times a week to daily, said Irene Ng, who has run the Imperial Ballroom Dance Studio with her dance partner and husband Ming since 1995. Oftentimes, Ng said, the joy continues even after the dancing ends, when elders will grab dim sum and other small bites and, literally and figuratively, spill the tea. It’s become such an integral part to many older immigrants’ lives, Ng said, that she and her husband often remain open through inclement weather. The seniors won’t miss a dance class for the world, she explained. 

“There’s laughter everywhere, all the time,” Ng, 58, said. “Making new friends, laughing, having fun and sharing food. That’s the type of thing you will see in the studio.” 

SanSan Kwan, author of “Kinesthetic City: Dance and Movement in Chinese Urban Spaces,” explained that much of the amateur ballroom dance community is made up of first-generation Chinese Americans who came to the U.S. in the 1950s and '60s and beyond, spending most of their lives focused on professional endeavors. Some attained higher education degrees, and others spent decades toiling away in their industries with a sense of duty to guarantee a good life for the next generation. The discovery of ballroom often came at a time when elders dared to take back their own independence and indulge their own curiosities and passions. 

“They spent decades establishing themselves professionally, establishing their families, and it wasn’t until they got to a certain age close to retirement, they were really able to embrace the practice,” Kwan said. “It was an opportunity to focus on themselves.” 

Image: People wearing floral necklaces and floral clothes posing for a photo.
Courtesy Edward Wan

Ballroom dance also offers elders a rare opportunity to be performative and show out, Kwan said. Dance parties and performances often mean dancers get to wear costumes or flashier getups, slip on literal dancing shoes or shimmy into sequined outfits. 

“Interestingly, it crosses genders. It wasn’t just women who were doing this. There were lots of men and there are still lots of men who really see this as their creative outlet,” Kwan said. "So it was a real opportunity to break from all the professional and familial obligations and do something for themselves and also literally to peacock, to shine.”

While ballroom dance is no replacement for mental health help, Kathy Yep, an Asian American studies professor at Pitzer College whose work focuses on cultural politics and community health, said that the art form has some therapeutic qualities. And for many, it’s a way to process trauma and stressors through a lens that isn’t necessarily Western talk therapy. 

Yep recounted how her own great-uncle, an ethnic Chinese Vietnamese refugee, had been put in a labor camp after America pulled out of the Vietnam War, and experienced a great deal of struggle with survival. Ballroom, she said, was his “rebirth.” 

“The body and movement of the body as a collective can be a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, a sense of connectedness, in the face of histories of trauma or histories of war and histories of violence,” Yep said. 

Wan similarly shared that he faced mental health struggles, including depression and feelings of isolation, following his wife’s death a few years ago. He said he felt disconnected, unmotivated to go out or see friends. Ballroom dance helped him move forward, he said. 

“It opened up my eyes,” Wan said. “In my own case, I found a girl I will eventually get married to. It’s kind of unexpected for me, it’s changed my life.” 

Not only does the art form thrust individuals into social interaction, but it also centers around physical health. 

“As immigrants in the U.S., you don’t have many hobbies or entertainment. If they think of something to do on a weekend, usually it’s mahjong or karaoke, but none of these have movement,” Ng said. “So in dancing, your whole body is moving, your legs are moving, your arms are moving, your head is moving. It’s a really good exercise for the seniors.” 

And Yep added that it helps people articulate who they are. 

“This idea of how people get the agency to say what they’re experiencing through the body and through dance is quite powerful when you may not have an opportunity to always put your stamp on who you are,” she said. 

Already, some are feeling a sense of unease due to the shootings. Ng herself has begun latching the studio door, and encouraged others to do the same when they’re practicing late at night. But, she said, when it comes to the seniors, they will never stop dancing. 

“We will keep going,” Ng said. “We will continue to just stay open and just be vigilant.”