Dancing resumes at studio targeted by Monterey Park gunman

Lucy Wong was not sure at first whether it was safe to go back to Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra.

It was here where 72-year-old gunman Huu Can Tran went after fatally shooting 11 at another dance studio in nearby Monterey Park. Authorities believe he planned another attack in Alhambra, but a man at the studio wrestled the gun away from him and Tran fled.

But as more details emerged in the days since the shooting, Wong and other Lai Lai patrons 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, Chinese, but I found that it’s not — it’s just one crazy person. So I feel OK; I’m not scared anymore.”

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

Maksym Kapitanchuk, who has worked as an instructor 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 Friday during a Social Tea Dance at the studio. “To see them back here is really good.”

Kapitanchuk was out of state when he learned of the mass shooting. He expected Lai Lai and his students would want time off after being so close to the tragedy. But a Facebook post announced that classes would resume.

“I thought everyone would be scared to come back,” he said. “But nobody wanted to stop the classes. It’s a very strong community.”

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

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

Wong has been going to Lai Lai for more than 20 years, studying ballroom dance, but she started her lessons many years ago at Star Ballroom Dance Studio, switching to the Alhambra studio only when her instructor relocated to it.

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

Lai Lai student Coco Jiang also knew Ma, whom she said she had danced with several times and described as “a very, very friendly 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 daytime party,” Jiang said. “I saw him before but never talked to him. I knew that face.”

Wong said she still finds the attack confusing, given the shooter’s absence from the dance community for so long. “There are a lot of rumors around [about the gunman’s motive], but it’s not trustworthy,” she said.

Her love of dance propelled Wong to get back to it, saying she wouldn’t let one random occurrence dictate her life.

“If you are not a dance enthusiast, I guess you would be afraid and stop coming for a while,” the 73-year-old said. “For people like me, I love dancing a lot, so if I feel safe, I will continue dancing. I won’t be intimidated by one event.”

The weekend’s events were a reminder for Wong that life is fragile and unpredictable — so much so that the day after the shooting, she started planning trips to places she’s always wanted to visit.

Elsewhere in the ballroom, dance instructor Liya Kazbekova held a private lesson with a teenage student. Kazbekova, who has been an instructor with the studio for four years, was in England at a dance competition with a student when the shooting occurred.

She said she was frozen in disbelief when she learned of the tragedy. After digesting the news, her mind immediately raced to her boyfriend and dance partner, Roman Drobotov, who had been scheduled to work Saturday afternoon at Star Ballroom.

“My first thought was, ‘Oh, my gosh, he’s there.’ And I started to call 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 turned out he had canceled his workday because he had jet lag and had lost his keys, she said.

Learning her partner was safe relieved Kazbekova, but she found herself reeling again when she learned that her boss, Ma of Star Ballroom, was among those who had been at the studio that night.

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

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

“I had to pretend that I’m fine, so it was a hard day because my emotions were like somewhere in between,” she said. “I was trying to be with her and be fine and still smile and support her. And at the same time, I was on the phone and trying to realize what’s going on.”

Once her student’s competition was over, she said, she felt sick to her stomach as she fully processed the news. She then reached out to all of her students from Lai Lai and Star Ballroom. She heard back from all but one: Mymy Nhan, who was one of the 11 people gunned down in Monterey Park.

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

“She always brought some snacks for us like oranges, strawberries after the class, and her husband, Michael, was also super bright and a nice person. He used to always kind of give us funny comments on the group classes. … These are the kind of little moments that stay with you forever, especially when this kind of thing happens.”

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

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

One student at Lai Lai, who asked that her name not be used, told The Times that she was at Star Ballroom the night of the shooting. She said she was dancing the jive when she heard the first gunshot.

“A lot of people thought it was the fake fireworks,” she said. When she realized it was gunshots, she said only one thought entered her mind: “Oh, my God. Don’t die. Don’t die.”

Detectives are still trying to determine the movements and motives of Tran. Law enforcement sources said he was once a regular in the local ballroom dancing scene and that jealousy of some kind might have been the motive. But L.A. County Sheriff Robert Luna said at a new conference Wednesday night that investigators had not made any connections between Tran and those he killed.

It is also a mystery why he went to Lai Lai. But Luna said officials believe he planned a second attack.

Brandon Tsay, whose family owns the Alhambra studio and who works at the ticket office, was in the lobby looking into the studio when he heard the front door close late Saturday, followed by the sound of metal clinking, 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 I was gonna die here. This was it.”

Tsay said the man, whom he did not recognize, appeared to be looking around the room “for targets” and “people to harm.”

The 26-year-old said that he lunged at the man with both hands, setting off a struggle in the lobby for control of the gun. “I needed to take this weapon, disarm him or else everybody would have died.”

Tsay later told reporters outside his house in San Marino that he did not consider himself a hero.

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

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

Jiang, who resumed her Latin ballroom lessons on Wednesday, rushed to his side, wrapping him in an enormous hug and thanking him for what he had done.

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