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Monterey Park shooting survivors find healing in dance

Lloyd Gock was struggling with depression.

His clothing company wasn’t doing well. Sometimes, he would think about ending his life. He went to a doctor and was prescribed medication. Nothing was working.

Then the 67-year-old Alhambra resident, who loves to dance salsa, merengue and bachata, started visiting Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park and Lai Lai Ballroom in Alhambra. Being around people his age helped him find community. Over time, his mental health improved.

“Dancing helped me to get out of my depression,” he said. “I wanted to convey how dancing is so important to us as a community. As we get older, this is our only livelihood.”

But on the night of Jan. 21, his solace turned into a nightmare. Gock was attending a Lunar New Year celebration at Star Ballroom when gunman Huu Can Tran, 72, opened fire with a semiautomatic MAC-10 assault weapon. The partygoers, many of whom were doing a line dance near the entrance, at first thought the gunshots were celebratory fireworks.

Tran sprayed the room with bullets, reloaded, then started firing again. When he stopped, 10 people were dead and nine were injured. One victim later died at the hospital. The day after the shooting, Tran killed himself as police closed in on his van at a Torrance strip mall.

Six months later, the tragedy has left many survivors in the depths of depression and anxiety. But it also has brought fellow dancers together, forging new relationships. Some have joined in the fight for stronger gun control measures. Others have realized how much they need dancing in their lives.

Along the way, three survivors found their way back to the dance floor, determined not to let that horrific act of violence define them and destroy a community they had worked so hard to build.

But others are struggling to recover and have avoided dancing — or going out — altogether.

“They’re still very traumatized. Time helps to heal and it’s kind of fading away, but when they talk about it, it’s still like it was yesterday.”

— Lloyd Gock

Monterey Park was the 34th mass shooting of the year in the U.S. and one of three in California in about a week, according to the Gun Violence Archive, an independent research group that collects data from law enforcement, media, government and commercial sources. So far in 2023, there have been more than 400 across the country.

Women comfort each other at a memorial with photos and candles.

Outside the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, women comfort each other on Jan. 26 while paying their respects at a memorial for 11 people who were killed in a mass shooting.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The repercussions of a mass shooting can be compared to dropping a pebble in water, said Erika Felix, a clinical psychology professor at UC Santa Barbara who has studied the impact of gun violence.

“You see the most disruption closest to the epicenter, but the effects of these kind of tragedies ripple outwards,” she said.

The shooting also touched “people who felt psychologically close. Maybe they attended or used to attend dance classes at the center. They might know somebody at the shooting, but they’re not immediately identified by the media the way family members would be or direct survivors,” Felix said.

Some in the community, Felix said, are able to “bounce back.” Others may turn to alcohol or other drugs to cope with isolation and anxiety.

“Some people understandably need a helping hand to be on the road to recovery,” she added.

Gock is still trying to bounce back. For the second time in his life, dancing is helping him recover.

He immigrated as a teenager from Hong Kong to San Francisco with his parents in the 1970s and attended high school there. Years later, he moved to Los Angeles and started his clothing company, Montana Jeans. He married and had two children but declined to talk about his family, except to say his depression was mainly fueled by business struggles.

On the night of the massacre, Gock and two friends dropped to the ground and hid under the tables in the ballroom. His dance partner threw her coat over his head and told him not to move. Another held up a table to block the bullets. All three survived, but the people in front of them were fatally shot.

“All of the people who died are our friends,” Gock said. “We see each other dancing all the time. It’s like a family. Something like this happening to us is unimaginable.”

Suicide prevention and crisis counseling resources

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, seek help from a professional and call 9-8-8. The United States’ first nationwide three-digit mental health crisis hotline 988 will connect callers with trained mental health counselors. Text “HOME” to 741741 in the U.S. and Canada to reach the Crisis Text Line.

In June, Gock flew to Washington, D.C., to advocate for gun control reform as part of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force panel chaired by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena).

A man wearing a tiger T-shirt raises his arms while speaking.

Lloyd Gock, 72, seen June 18 at Lai Lai Ballroom in Alhambra, traveled to Washington, D.C., to advocate for gun control reform.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Gock implored lawmakers to implement a ban on large-capacity magazines and assault weapons, like the ones Tran used in his deadly rampage. He wants more funding for mental health services and stricter “red flag” laws, which allow states to take firearms and ammunition from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others.

“We need to educate our Asian American immigrant communities about red-flag laws in multiple languages — because English isn’t always the primary language for many of us — so that potential gunmen who are mentally unstable will be reported and their guns taken away from them,” Gock said to the panel.

Tran’s motive still hasn’t been determined, although Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna recently said the gunman sent a manifesto to law enforcement. Luna declined to discuss the information further, citing an ongoing FBI investigation.

Gock was numb in the days after the shooting. He could barely sleep, and when he did, kept having nightmares. He was afraid of the dark. He started seeing a therapist, who helped him open up about what happened. Eventually, the trauma became easier to bear.

Immediately after the shooting, he visited the Langley Community Center, which served as a resource center for victims, and finally let himself cry. There, he connected with other survivors and started a WeChat group with more than two dozen people.

Gock created a monthly support group for people affected by the shooting. Slowly, people began opening up about how they were struggling.

“I think part of the purpose of why I didn’t get shot, and maybe I didn’t die, is to do this,” he said. “At that time, I needed to get the group together. We’re all traumatized. And hopefully, we’ll go into recovery.”

Gock has tried to push for more financial support for those who weren’t wounded in the attack but were left emotionally scarred. He said that while a GoFundMe page raised more than $1 million for a victims fund, none of that money will go to the survivors without physical injuries.

“Slowly we are being forgotten,” he said. “A lot of people promised a lot of things, but nothing is coming true for us.”

A bowl of water with flowers.

“If you stop dancing, then the shooter got what he wanted, which is to terrorize us into not being able to dance.”

— Lloyd Gock

Almost right away, Gock went back to dancing at Lai Lai, where Brandon Tsay disarmed the gunman at his family’s dance studio and prevented further carnage. But the shooting still affected Gock’s routine.

Instead of dancing nearly every day, Gock now goes two or three times a week — and rarely at night. He and the other dancers often glance at the entrance and sit in the back of the room, next to an exit door.

“A lot of these people who were there that night, their whole body was covered in the blood from their best friends, and they had to go to the police station and stay there until 2 or 3 p.m. the next day,” Gock said.

“They’re still very traumatized. Time helps to heal and it’s kind of fading away, but when they talk about it, it’s still like it was yesterday.”

For decades, the tightknit dance community in Monterey Park found refuge at Star Ballroom. After the studio opened in the 1990s, dance enthusiasts flocked to take lessons, attend parties under the glittering disco ball or belt out songs in the studio’s karaoke room.

Known as the “first suburban Chinatown,” Monterey Park became an enclave for immigrants from majority Asian countries. Star Ballroom gave the older generation a creative outlet and a way to connect with peers in their native tongue.

When President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris visited Monterey Park this year, Gock told them how important it was that his community come back stronger.

“If you stop dancing, then the shooter got what he wanted, which is to terrorize us into not being able to dance,” he said. “That was his whole main purpose. I was advocating for everyone to come back to dancing.”

As the gunshots were fired, Lowell Lou, a 76-year-old Alhambra resident, saw a man still standing while everyone else hid under the tables. Lou ran over and pulled him to the floor.

“I don’t even know his name or remember his face,” Lou said. “It happened so fast.”

A woman leans over to give a side hug to a man who is seated and wearing a mask.

Hattie Peng shares a moment with Jimmy Choi at the Elks Lodge on June 21 in San Gabriel.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Lou started dancing at Star Ballroom nearly two decades ago, after he emigrated from Hong Kong. He started taking ballroom lessons with a group of about 20 friends.

After the shooting, Lou also went back to dancing right away at the Elks Lodge in San Gabriel and the Joslyn Adult Center in Alhambra.

But he’s not completely recovered. Sometimes at night, he lies awake in bed, enduring flashbacks of the shooting. He’s waiting to get an appointment with a therapist — the first time he’s ever sought counseling.

“We are injured in terms of mental health,” he said. “Whatever you saw that night, you’ll never forget for the rest of your life.”

When he’s at a dance hall, Lou said some of his friends want to sit far from the entrance.

But fear and apprehension don’t mix well with dancing, he said.

“You have to be happy and relaxed and enjoy yourself while you dance.”

Hattie Peng and Jim Goodman met five years ago at the Pasadena Elks Lodge and have danced together since. At the time, Peng saw Goodman in the back of the room watching the dance floor. She asked if he wanted to dance.

Later, Goodman handed Peng his business card. Peng thought his last name was fake.

“I asked him, ‘Are you a good man?’ And he said, ‘Maybe,’” she said, and laughed.

The shooting that shattered so many lives instead created a lasting bond between the two.

As the bullets flew, Goodman, a retired police officer, pulled Peng to the floor and shielded her. A bullet pierced Goodman’s left foot and another struck his back — right where Peng’s heart would’ve been.

After the shooting stopped, Peng realized she was covered in blood.

A man twirls a woman on the dance floor.

Hattie Peng twirls with a partner at the Elks Lodge in San Gabriel.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

“I was crying,” she said. “I saw the bullet through Jim’s foot. My first thought was, ‘Oh, my God. He can’t dance anymore.’”

Goodman spent nearly two weeks in the hospital, and Peng visited him every day. After he was released, Peng came over four to five times a week. His foot hasn’t fully healed, so he hasn’t been able to go out dancing.

“I always say he’s my hero. I owe him,” Peng said. “That’s why whenever he needs me, I’ll go to him. I’ll go shopping, buy food for him, cook for him, do laundry for him. Whatever he needs. But he’s a very independent man. That’s why he always encourages me to go back to my normal life. Go dancing.”

Peng has started seeing a therapist and taking psychiatric medication. At first, she slept too much and couldn’t get out of bed. She gained weight. She went dancing but felt too traumatized and had to stop for more than a month.

In May, Peng returned to the dance floor — at the Elks Lodge in San Gabriel and at the Steinmetz Senior Center in Hacienda Heights. But she often catches herself looking at the entrance to make sure she isn’t too close to the door.

“I still need to dance,” she said. “The shooting cannot stop me.”

Still, Peng has changed. During her morning walks, she feels anxious if she sees a truck with tinted windows or anything else that appears out of place.

About a month ago, Peng danced with Goodman in his living room. She told him a friend had just learned the salsa.

“Jim just wanted to know that he still remembers the pattern,” she said.

Others, however, are not ready to go back to dancing.

Amy met Valentino Alvero about 20 minutes before Tran unloaded a stream of bullets into the crowd.

Alvero, a 68-year-old Filipino American, asked if she wanted to dance. Amy, who requested that her last name not be used, left her friends, Xiujuan Yu, 57, and Lilian Li, 63, sitting by the entrance.

A woman raises a fan while dancing

Hattie Peng at the Elks Lodge.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

As Amy and Alvero danced, she thought she heard firecrackers. Then, Alvero fell to the floor and pulled her down with him. As the gunman was reloading, she tried to stand back up. Alvero pulled her down again.

When the noise stopped, Amy tried shaking Alvero’s leg, but he didn’t move. After she left Star Ballroom, she tried calling Alvero’s number twice. When he didn’t pick up, she realized he was most likely dead.

She later found out that her friends Yu and Li had also been killed.

“If Valentino didn’t invite me [to dance], maybe I would’ve died too,” she said. “He saved me. He’s my hero. He was a really good person.”

That January night was the second time Amy had visited Star Ballroom. She hasn’t danced since. Since the shooting, she has had trouble eating, sleeping and going to work. She lost weight. She hasn’t spoken to a therapist or gone out much. She attended a few survivors meetings but prefers not to share.

“I tried not to think about the incident, but it would show up in my mind, and I couldn’t stop it,” she said. “I would be frightened so severely. I could see the bloody scene and was so scared to relive the event. Once it showed up in my mind, I couldn’t sleep at all.”

For Gock, it was important that the most recent survivors meeting in June be limited to those who were in Star Ballroom that night. No media, therapists or anyone from the county attended. He wanted the survivors to continue the healing process.

And now, he’s noticed more people are coming back out to dance.

“What happened at Star really scared a lot of people,” he said. “They’re not ready to come out. Now, they’re coming out a little bit more, but people are still scared because that gun problem never went away.”

A bowl of fruits.

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