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He’s a retired cop. She’s a ‘dancing queen.’ He saved her life at Star Ballroom.

Monterey Park, Calif., survivors recount the mass shooting at a dance haven for the Asian American community

Hattie Peng and Jim Goodman have been dancing partners and friends since they first met on the dance floor. Goodman saved Peng's life during the shooting. (Video: Alice Li, Arelis Hernández/The Washington Post, Photo: Philip Cheung/The Washington Post)

MONTEREY PARK, Calif. — Hattie Peng was in search of a new dance partner when she spotted James Goodman.

The vivacious, self-described Taiwanese “dancing queen” invited the retired cop to a twirl. It wasn’t the best sway of her life. But there was something about the way they moved together that felt right. He introduced himself as Jim and gave her his card.

Staring down at it Peng thought the name was fake and snorted playfully: “Are you a good man?”

She would learn the answer years later when an angry man burst into a California ballroom in the middle of a line dance, spraying bullets wildly across a dance floor filled with hundreds of Lunar New Year revelers. Goodman instinctively pulled his dance partner down, using his larger frame to shield Peng from the blasts others grievously mistook for fireworks.

The first barrage sent a bullet through his foot. The second pierced his back. Peng escaped unscathed.

“He’s my hero,” she said. “Jim protected me.”

The attacker, identified by law enforcement as 72-year-old Huu Can Tran, targeted what had been a social sanctum for the mostly Asian immigrant community of divorcés, couples, lonely hearts and widowers mastering salsa steps and flirting with second chances.

For years, virtuosos and amateurs practiced their footwork at Star Ballroom Dance Studio under colorful ambient lighting to music in English, Spanish and Mandarin inside the ballroom’s mirrored walls, learning and performing dances from around the world. It was a place where immigrants like Peng, 59, who spent their youth working hard to build new lives in America, came to let loose.

The studio’s story is very much the tale of Monterey Park, the Asian diaspora, and now the toll of gun violence in places that are meant to be joyous in America.

“In many ways, it’s like, ‘What a beautiful multicultural story,’” said Timothy Fong, a professor of ethnic studies at Sacramento State University who has written a history of Monterey Park. He noted that ballroom dancing is also popular throughout Asia, leading to films such as “Shall We Dance?,” a 1996 blockbuster in Japan that was later remade by Hollywood.

For David DuVal there was no place like Star. The dance instructor walked in the studio for the first time a decade ago at the urging of a friend who told him there was money to be made instructing at Chinese dance studios. The studio offered him more than a job. It gave him the embrace of a dedicated community of dancers eager to share their culture and welcome elite instructors from around the world.

For some, it was a casual hobby, or a way to build social ties and confidence, DuVal said. For others, it was a skill to be honed and shown off at regular “showcases” that ballroom manager Ming Wei Ma, or Mr. Ma, excitedly pitched at the end of classes, his hand waving a flier in the air, DuVal said. The studio tailored lessons for students ages 30 to 90 and offered classes on dances not taught in American-style studios, such as the Taiwanese jitterbug. Clients were mostly Chinese or Vietnamese, mostly women, and mostly older. But everyone was welcome.

Days were for “tea dances,” at which tea was served, and private lessons.

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Mass killings in the U.S.
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Nights were for parties, no-frills affairs with a disco ball, women in glittery gowns and a steady stream of cha-cha, fox trot, waltz, salsa, tango, bachata and occasional pop interludes. By 8:30 p.m. on Saturdays, the immense dance floor was crowded with couples swirling through polished, elaborate routines. Most everyone came with a partner: Unlike at American-style studios, dancers typically stuck with one person all night, and hiring instructors as partners was common, DuVal said. In a smaller backroom, patrons belted out karaoke songs in Cantonese and Mandarin.

Open seven days a week, Star Ballroom Dance Studio was a landmark in Monterey Park. By the time the studio opened in 1990, the city’s demographics had changed dramatically, earning it the moniker of the “first suburban Chinatown.” The studio catered to a growing number of dance enthusiasts who were primarily emigrants from Taiwan and Hong Kong, said George Uba, a professor emeritus of English at California State University Northridge who has researched the dance studio phenomenon.

Now an increasing number of dancers are originally from mainland China and Vietnam, he said. But there have always been others, too, like Uba himself, who is Japanese American. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, he used to dance at Star several times a week. He was fascinated by what he saw: a majority-Asian clientele of vastly different economic backgrounds drawn to the venue for exercise and social interaction.

To the outside world, ballroom dance is “loaded with colonial, heteronormative and bourgeois associations,” said Uba. But such associations “become unmoored when you have large dance floors populated” with mostly Asian dancers.

Survivor Hattie Peng described how she was saved by her friend Jim during the Monterey Park, Calif. shooting which killed 11 people, on Jan. 21. (Video: Arelis Hernández, Alice Li/The Washington Post)

Ballroom dancing was so popular that a local health start-up, Clever Care, worked out a deal with the dance studio to cover the membership fees and lessons for its health insurance customers.

“We cater to first generation immigrant communities and learning what they want,” said Peter Winston, senior vice president and general manager. “In the Chinese community, they like to dance, so we created a benefit to keep people moving.”

More than one generation of Monterey Park residents have taken spins on its dance floor. Elizabeth Yang, a lawyer whose office is across the street, said her mother began going there with friends over a decade ago. Yang began taking lessons every Monday night about a year ago. At age 40, she was probably the youngest person in her class, she said. The class was largely Mandarin-speaking women, most of them retired and looking for a way to have fun and keep healthy.

“A lot of these older people, their health isn’t that great,” said DuVal, who over time learned to speak and read Chinese from his students. “They’re sort of dancing to stay alive, you know, to keep and to stay vibrant.”

Yang’s instructor, Dariusz Michalski, spoke only a few words of Mandarin, and many of the women were not comfortable speaking English. So Michalski used dance to communicate, deploying “body language to show them what to do,” he said.

Nearly every student who walked down Star’s promenade to the front door was greeted by two people: Maria Liang, the owner of the studio, at the front desk, and Ma, the ebullient manager known for his effusive and encouraging manner, at the DJ/cashier booth.

That is where Peng remembers Ma was when she saw the first explosion of gunfire around 10:20 p.m. The party was winding down but still bumping as a line of dancers moved in unison to a Chinese song, “Light Rain in March.”

Peng, a retired preschool teacher, had taught Goodman how to salsa, rumba, cha-cha and waltz over the five years they had been dance partners. They cycled through the circuit of dance halls, Elks lodges, senior centers and American Legion posts of the San Gabriel Valley strutting their moves. They once won a giant basket of candy after wowing local judges with a salsa spin the pair incorporated into their swing routine. Raucous laughter and full bellies at local Chinese restaurants routinely followed dance nights out.

Star became their home because it felt like home. They enjoyed the peace the studio offered dancers like them, communicating in their own unique mix of English and Mandarin and ignoring the inescapable seven-inch height difference between them. Peng joked and knew everyone. And the New Year’s dance — with its $15 cover fee — was exactly the kind of party they would never miss.

There was no security working the door, but Star was the last place Peng and Goodman thought would need it.

That night the pair stuck to swing dancing on their own near a table close to the ballroom entrance. That is when a man, who looked vaguely familiar to Peng, lifted what she thought was some kind of pyrotechnic and unleashed carnage.

“He bent down with something in his hand, squatted and opened fire on the cashier cage,” Goodman said from his hospital bed.

Ma, the manager, was killed, according to a message posted by Liang, the studio’s owner, in a group chat on the messaging app WeChat. Liang wrote that Ma — whom she called “my best friend, my kindest teacher” — had died. Authorities confirmed Ma’s death on Tuesday.

After shooting up the booth, the gunman swung his firearm left and right, fanning the room with the first volley of bullets.

“He turned around toward the ballroom, and that’s when I heard what I knew was small caliber gunfire,” Goodman recalled. In pushing Peng under a table he felt the first sting in his heel. Blood poured out from a hole in his shoe. The shooting paused after about 20 rounds, Peng said. The former San Gabriel police lieutenant yelled at his partner to reposition herself so he could cover her completely.

Then it started again. Goodman stretched out his arms and groaned.

“I yelled ‘Nooooo, Jim!’ because he was shot in the back. I just held him tight,” Peng said. “It was like a movie, as if we were acting, but it was real. If Jim had not pulled me down, I would’ve been dead.”

Goodman said he was devastated to see so much of his own blood on the floor. He managed to walk out of the ballroom to emergency responders outside, leaning on Peng trying to keep him up.

“I just wanted to protect my dance partner,” he said.

Saturday’s violence forever changed what Star Ballroom Dance Studio means to Peng. She danced a jive with a man who was later slain next to her. She had swiveled her legs in a tango with another dancer who later died. Dancing is her life, Peng said, and she rarely lets more than a week pass before she hits the floor. But her world has “gone from color to black-and-white.”

She is considering giving up dancing until Goodman recovers.

But, he said, he does not know if he will ever be able to dance again.

Alice Crites, Maria Luisa Paúl, Daniel Wu and Brittany Shammas in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

More on the California shootings

The latest: California has grappled with two mass killings in three days. A weekend shooting at a dance studio in Monterey Park left 11 people dead, and seven people were killed in related shootings at two locations around Half Moon Bay.

The victims: The identified Monterey Park shooting victims include a “loving aunt” and a joyful dancer. The people killed in the gunfire were all in their 50s, 60s and 70s, police said. Authorities have not released the victims’ identities in the Half Moon Bay shooting.

The suspects: Police identified the Monterey Park suspect as Huu Can Tran, a 72-year-old man of Asian descent, who was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound Sunday. Authorities arrested 67-year-old Zhao Chunli in connection with the Half Moon Bay shootings. He’s facing a murder charge in court.

The weapon: Officers have described three guns they linked to the Monterey Park attacker: A rifle found in his home, a handgun recovered from his van and what they said was a modified semiautomatic taken away at the second dance studio. In the Half Moon Bay shootings, authorities recovered a semiautomatic handgun from the vehicle the suspect was located in. California’s gun laws are some of the strongest in the nation.

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