San Francisco Chronicle
Steps toward healing
After tragedy, Asian elders find joy, sanctuary on ballroom dance floor
The party was just getting started on a Thursday night in Oakland, but the dance floor was already warmed up.
Women in kitten heels and fishnet stockings sashayed across, fingertips light in their partners’ palms.
Illuminated in red and purple, the couples twirled and glided for three minutes until the music faded. “Next dance: Quick Step,” the automated playlist declared over the speakers. The dancers shuffled to find partners and started again.
Every Thursday and Sunday, as many as 80 dancers from across the Bay Area travel to Just Dance Ballroom in Oakland’s Embarcadero neighborhood to social dance.
For three hours, they perfect their technique in rhumba, cha cha, waltz and tango while songs rotate between sultry ballroom instrumentals and American pop. The bass is chest-thumping, but the vibe is more like a coordinated orchestra than a nightclub: Partners move their feet in sync, they sway close to one another, they pull apart while spinning around other pairs.
Almost all of the dancers are retired, elderly and Asian American. Social dance is a popular, generations-old pastime in the Asian American Pacific Islander community, a hobby that dates back over a century and spans different Asian ethnicities, socioeconomic groups and U.S. immigration routes.
The activity tragically was thrust into the national spotlight on Jan. 21, when a gunman walked into Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park (Los Angeles County) and started firing. The mass shooting killed 11 people and shattered what has been a sanctuary for some AAPI elders: a ballroom dance floor.
The shooting could have halted dancers from continu
ing their weekly ritual, but that hasn’t happened in the Bay Area. Instead, ballroom dancers have returned to the floor, reclaiming a space where AAPI elders find connection, refuge, autonomy and self-confidence. It’s also a space that exudes infectious joy.
Freedom on the floor
On this Thursday night at Just Dance, San Mateo resident Beverly Jayne, who turns 94 this year, arrives in a lime green sequined shirt, black beaded skirt and fake eyelashes, accompanied by a dance host who drives her to Oakland each week.
“I just dance to keep my heart rate up,” said Jayne, who started ballroom dancing over a decade ago after being encouraged by a girlfriend to try it out. “I’m happy that I get to meet people. People talk to me, and I find new friends.”
San Manh, owner of Just Dance, opened the studio in 1994 in Oakland Chinatown before moving to a bigger space along the Oakland Embarcadero in 2006. His ballroom dance community has grown over the past three decades. With classes, he estimates 400 dancers visit the studio each week, 90% of them Chinese.
Some are childhood friends, like Brian Wong and Dennis Tom. They’re both 71 and American-born Chinese who met at St. Joseph’s High School in Alameda. They reconnected as retirees on the dance floor and think of the studio as their “clubhouse.”
“It’s almost like we’re kids out here playing. We don’t have as much energy as before, your recovery time takes longer, and we have to take a few more pills and do more things that the doctor tells us to do, but we’re all real happy,” Wong said.
There are mental benefits, too. San Francisco resident and semi-retired Realtor Lillian Ng learned to dance about seven years ago and says it keeps her agile.
“I’ve learned 10 different dances, and each dance has different levels,” Ng said. “It’s ongoing training. You never stop learning.”
The camaraderie of the Just Dance ballroom extends beyond the dance floor to when personal hardships arise. When Oakland resident Jim Kawasaki, lost his eyesight in 2009, he says the Just Dance community took turns visiting him at the hospital.
“I’m more insecure outside of this place,” he said. “To me, this makes me feel much more safe than being out there.”
Manh’s 25-year-old daughter, Crystal Wong, works regularly as the studio’s receptionist and says it makes her happy to see her “uncles and aunties” enjoying themselves.
“Most of the people (here) are retired or close to retirement, and now they’re getting their social lives back, living for themselves now and finding joy in life after grinding for 40-plus years,” Crystal Wong said. “A lot of people will bring me aside and tell me, ‘Thanks to your dad, we have a place here. We have a community here.’ He’s just someone who likes to have a good time and have a space where people can feel safe and protected.”
The Sunday after the shooting in Monterey Park, dancers gathered at Just Dance to discuss the tragedy. It was the first day of the Lunar New Year — an auspicious time when you’re supposed to avoid talking about taboo topics like death, according to Chinese superstition.
“We were, of course, shocked,” said Manh, who noticed only a slight drop in attendance that week. “Everybody felt sad because this was a dance community, but we also understood that this was one crazy thing that happened.”
As early details of the incident emerged, the horror around the shooting collided with another anxiety: the deepseated fear of being randomly attacked. Over the past three years, the spotlight has dramatically shifted to violence against the AAPI community. Story after story, social media post after post have spotlighted bruised and battered Asian victims in places like Oakland Chinatown, San Francisco’s Market Street and the Laurel Heights neighborhood. The elderly are often the most vulnerable.
But on ballroom dance floors, and especially on social dance night, Asian elders are their whole selves: jubilant, resilient and playful. They take up space with confidence, surefooted and straight-backed.
A cultural export
Ballroom dancing in AAPI communities can be traced to the early 20th century, according to Yutian Wong, a professor of dance studies at San Francisco State University. That’s when international style ballroom dancing was formalized in the 1920s and four dances — the slow waltz, the foxtrot, the quickstep and the tango — became standardized through instruction and competition, allowing for easy export.
“Because of colonialism and cultural imperialism, Europeans and Americans brought different forms of ballroom dancing right to Asia,” Wong said. Dance halls and jazz clubs became popular in Shanghai during the 1920s. The French brought tango to Vietnam in the ’30s, and the dance style also became a hit in Japan.
Asian elites who traveled to Europe and the United States brought dances back to their home countries. Eventually, Wong says, ballroom dance came to signify modernity and upward mobility: “It was associated with a certain kind of educated class, that you were open to new ideas.”
In the century since, Asian Americans and Asian immigrants who arrived in the U.S. in the 1950s and ’60s have picked up the same hobby that was popular at home. Some learned as teenagers in cities like Hong Kong; others started soon after retirement to stay busy.
While ballroom dancing symbolized Western aspirations in the past, in the U.S. it has come to represent a different kind of AAPI immigrant story, one of community connection and self-reliance. Today, you can find ballroom dancing across Asian cultural spaces: Filipino family gatherings, Vietnamese refugees in dance studios, Chinese elders in banquet halls and community centers.
Mental health and cha cha
Just Dance community members are mostly middle-upper class with resources to afford and commit to regular social dancing. The studio’s most devoted dancers can pay upward of $700 a month for social dance parties, classes and private lessons. But other elderly Asian groups face different challenges.
Anni Chung is the president and CEO of Self-Help for the Elderly, a nonprofit that provides social services to low-income Chinese seniors in San Francisco. Chung joined the organization in the late ’70s and says there are approximately 50,000 Chinese residents over the age of 60 in the city.
“If you’re an older Chinese immigrant in San Francisco, you have to go through day-today life, sometimes on your own without the ability to speak English and unable to navigate a lot of public benefits,” Chung explained.
She says the aim of Self-Help is to provide them the tools to be self-sufficient and lead dignified lives.
Twice-weekly free ballroom dancing classes are one of SelfHelp’s methods for doing just that.
On a recent sunny afternoon in the Outer Sunset, Chinese retirees in face masks chatted in Cantonese and changed into their dancing shoes inside the South Sunset Community Center at 40th and Vicente streets.
There wasn’t a disco ball spinning from the ceiling or sleek dance floors. Instead, leftover Lunar New Year decorations were taped to the walls alongside posters directing seniors to in-language social resources. Tables and chairs were pushed to the side to make space for dancing, and staff members worked at their computers in the corners of the room while music played from a small karaoke machine.
One of the dancers was Shirley Chan. On Thursdays and Fridays, Chan takes an 18 Muni bus to dance — even though traveling by herself makes her nervous. Nowadays, she leaves her Outer Sunset home only during the daytime, and she carries a personal safety alarm and pepper spray.
Dressed in a knitted shirt and flower-patterned skirt, Chan alternated between social dancing with partners and standing on the sidelines to coach others as they practiced the steps.
“For two, three years (because of) the pandemic, we stopped. And then of course, at home there was nothing to do, I was kind of depressed and afraid to walk out because of the hatred,” Chan said.
The pandemic halted all inperson meetings organized by Self-Help, with classes resuming only in August. Chung said it was a fragile time for Asian seniors in the city who depend on social activities.
“Our seniors are really driven to almost imprison themselves in their own little rooms or houses without going outside. That is very, very unhealthy, to have all these fears pent up,” Chung said.
Self-Help’s ballroom classes and other activities provide a pathway for staff to build rapport with seniors and provide an easier venue to express how they’re feeling because of stigmas around mental health issues in Asian cultures, she added. While dancing isn’t a substitute for mental health care and resources, the activities provide a much-needed respite from daily stress for many Chinese elders.
“For those two hours, they forget about their problems or worries. They dress up to feel good and dance with other seniors that they get to know in the center,” Chung said. “It’s just so lovely to see them smiling, big smiles from ear to ear.”
Before the pandemic, many San Francisco Chinese residents also social danced inside Chinatown’s banquet halls — large restaurants that can host hundreds for family celebrations and community gatherings. But banquet halls have been declining in San Francisco for years, leaving for suburbs like Millbrae or Burlingame or shuttering altogether.
New Asia, one of Chinatown’s last legacy banquet restaurants, was a major local host of ballroom social dance events. But the dance space closed when the city went into lockdown during the pandemic, and owner Hon Son eventually converted the banquet hall into a grocery.
Now the building faces a new future.
The City of San Francisco bought the property in 2016 to earmark for affordable senior housing, and in 2021, the nonprofit Chinatown Community Development Center was selected to develop the site — the city’s first new 100% affordable housing development in the neighborhood in over two decades.
While housing is important, Malcolm Yeung, CCDC’s executive director, says his organization also heard broad consensus that restoring the banquet space was a top priority. He says it’s vital to preserve affordable, accessible spaces for lowincome Chinatown seniors to connect over celebrations and activities, like ballroom dancing.
“Bigger is better,” said Chan, who misses the large dance floor at New Asia. She used to dance there about once a month before the pandemic. “For ballroom, especially waltz and tango, you need a lot of room. If the place is small, you’ll bump each other!”
It’s not just about having space to tango and socialize. Yeung says places like dance studios, community centers and banquet halls are where seniors can build their self-reliance.
“When people come together like that, particularly seniors, it’s also a space for them to realize their own significance, their own power, their own agency and being able to direct their own lives,” Yeung said. “These are the kinds of spaces and moments and events that can actually move you and your own internal identity from victim to actor.”
Back in Oakland, the community at Just Dance refuses to let fear or threats of violence deter them from dancing, including Jayne, one of the studio’s oldest dancers.
“Ballroom dancers, they take everything in stride,” she said. “What the heck, you know, life is short. Might as well do what you can.”
As another social dance event winds down, the dance floor empties and people collect their belongings and change out of their dancing shoes.
The music is off, and the room is a low murmur of Cantonese, Mandarin and English.
“Everybody, go home!” Manh announces into the microphone, eliciting laughter from the crowd.
Dancer Brian Wong grins and declares it’s time to “faan uk kei, sik fahn,” or “go home and eat dinner” in Cantonese.
The dancers linger and chat for a few minutes before pushing through the studio’s glass doors toward the parking lot.
Wong says he’ll keep coming to Just Dance until he physically can’t.
“There’s less than 20 years left for all of us to be functioning and running around,” he said. “So, I want to enjoy all the time I can with my friends.”
Listen to dancer interviews and the music of social dance events on this podcast episode of Fifth & Mission.