Steps toward healing: Asian elders find their power on the ballroom dance floor

Steps towards therapeutic: Asian elders discover their energy on the ballroom dance flooring

The get together was simply getting began on a Thursday evening in Oakland, however the dance flooring was already warmed up.

Ladies in kitten heels and fishnet stockings sashayed throughout, fingertips gentle of their companions palms.

Illuminated in purple and purple, the {couples} twirled and glided for 3 minutes till the music light. Subsequent dance: Fast Step, the automated playlist declared over the audio system. The dancers shuffled to seek out companions and began once more.

Each Thursday and Sunday, as many as 80 dancers from throughout the Bay Space journey to Simply Dance Ballroom in Oaklands Embarcadero neighborhood to social dance.

For 3 hours, they good their method in rhumba, cha cha, waltz and tango whereas songs rotate between sultry ballroom instrumentals and American pop. The bass is chest-thumping, however the vibe is extra like a coordinated orchestra than a nightclub: Companions transfer their ft in sync, they sway shut to at least one one other, they pull aside whereas spinning round different pairs.

Dancing, socialization, train and enjoyable are all objectives on social dance nights on Thursdays and Sundays at Simply Dance Ballroom in Oakland.

Andria Lo/Particular to The Chronicle

Nearly all the dancers are retired, aged and Asian American.

Social dance is a well-liked, generations-old pastime within the Asian American Pacific Islander neighborhood, a interest that dates again over a century and spans totally different Asian ethnicities, socioeconomic teams and U.S. immigration routes.

The exercise tragically was thrust into the nationwide highlight on Jan. 21, when a gunman walked into Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park (Los Angeles County) and began firing. The mass capturing killed 11 individuals and shattered what has been a sanctuary for some AAPI elders: a ballroom dance flooring.

The capturing may have halted dancers from persevering with their weekly ritual, however that hasnt occurred within the Bay Space. As an alternative, ballroom dancers have returned to the ground, reclaiming an area the place AAPI elders discover connection, refuge, autonomy and self-confidence. Its additionally an area that exudes infectious pleasure.

For three hours on Thursdays and Sundays at Just Dance Ballroom in Oakland, dancers perfect their technique in rhumba, cha cha, waltz and tango.

For 3 hours on Thursdays and Sundays at Simply Dance Ballroom in Oakland, dancers good their method in rhumba, cha cha, waltz and tango.

Andria Lo/Particular to The Chronicle

Freedom on the dance flooring

On this Thursday evening at Simply Dance, San Mateo resident Beverly Jayne, who turns 94 this 12 months, arrives in a lime inexperienced sequined shirt, black beaded skirt and pretend eyelashes, accompanied by a dance host who drives her to Oakland every week.

I simply dance to maintain my coronary heart fee up, stated Jayne, who began ballroom dancing over a decade in the past after being inspired by a girlfriend to attempt it out. Im blissful that I get to fulfill individuals. Individuals discuss to me, and I discover new mates.

San Manh, proprietor of Simply Dance, opened the studio in 1994 in Oakland Chinatown earlier than shifting to an even bigger area alongside the Oakland Embarcadero in 2006. His ballroom dance neighborhood has grown over the previous three many years. With courses, he estimates 400 dancers go to the studio every week, 90% of them Chinese language.

The lobby of Just Dance Ballroom in Oakland was festooned with Lunar New Year decorations in late January.

The foyer of Simply Dance Ballroom in Oakland was festooned with Lunar New Yr decorations in late January.

Andria Lo/Particular to The Chronicle

Some are childhood mates, like Brian Wong and Dennis Tom. Theyre each 71 and American-born Chinese language who met at St. Josephs Excessive College in Alameda. They reconnected as retirees on the dance flooring and consider the studio as their clubhouse.

Its nearly like have been youngsters out right here enjoying. We dont have as a lot power as earlier than, your restoration time takes longer, and we’ve got to take a couple of extra capsules and do extra issues that the physician tells us to do, however have been all actual blissful, Wong stated.

There are psychological advantages, too. San Francisco resident and semi-retired Realtor Lillian Ng realized to bounce about seven years in the past and says it retains her agile.

Ive realized 10 totally different dances, and every dance has totally different ranges, Ng stated. Its ongoing coaching. You by no means cease studying.

Lillian Ng is a regular at Just Dance Ballroom in Oakland.

Lillian Ng is an everyday at Simply Dance Ballroom in Oakland.

Andria Lo/Particular to The Chronicle

The camaraderie of the Simply Dance ballroom extends past the dance flooring to when private hardships come up. When Oakland resident Jim Kawasaki, misplaced his eyesight in 2009, he says the Simply Dance neighborhood took turns visiting him on the hospital.

Im extra insecure exterior of this place, he stated. To me, this makes me really feel rather more secure than being on the market.

Manhs 25-year-old daughter, Crystal Wong, works commonly because the studios receptionist and says it makes her blissful to see her uncles and aunties having fun with themselves.

The general public (right here) are retired or near retirement, and now theyre getting their social lives again, residing for themselves now and discovering pleasure in life after grinding for 40-plus years, Crystal Wong stated. Lots of people will convey me apart and inform me, Due to your dad, we’ve got a spot right here. We have now a neighborhood right here. Hes simply somebody who likes to have time and have an area the place individuals can really feel secure and guarded.

Dancing at Just Dance Ballroom in Oakland, Calif. on Sunday, January 29, 2023.
Dancing at Simply Dance Ballroom in Oakland, Calif. on Sunday, January 29, 2023.
Andria Lo/Particular to The Chronicle
Dancers at Just Dance Ballroom in Oakland, Calif. on Sunday, January 29, 2023.
Dancers at Simply Dance Ballroom in Oakland, Calif. on Sunday, January 29, 2023.
Andria Lo/Particular to The Chronicle

On ballroom dance flooring, particularly on events similar to social dance evening at Simply Dance Ballroom in Oakland, Asian elders are their complete selves: jubilant, resilient and playful. Photographs by Andria Lo / Particular To The Chronicle

The Sunday after the capturing in Monterey Park, dancers gathered at Simply Dance to debate the tragedy. It was the primary day of the Lunar New Yr an auspicious time when youre presupposed to keep away from speaking about taboo matters like dying, in accordance with Chinese language superstition.

We have been, after all, shocked, stated Manh, who seen solely a slight drop in attendance that week. All people felt unhappy as a result of this was a dance neighborhood, however we additionally understood that this was one loopy factor that occurred.

As early particulars of the incident emerged, the horror across the capturing collided with one other anxiousness: the deep-seated worry of being randomly attacked. Over the previous three years, the AAPI neighborhood has been the goal of a dramatic enhance in violence. Story after story, social media submit after submit has spotlighted bruised and battered Asian victims in locations like Oakland Chinatown, San Franciscos Market Road and the Laurel Heights neighborhood. The aged are sometimes essentially the most weak.

However on ballroom dance flooring, and particularly on social dance evening, Asian elders are their complete selves: jubilant, resilient and playful. They take up area with confidence, sure-footed and straight-backed.

Just Dance Ballroom in Oakland offers sufficient space for participants to move freely on the dance floor.

Simply Dance Ballroom in Oakland presents enough area for individuals to maneuver freely on the dance flooring.

Andria Lo/Particular to The Chronicle

A cultural export

Ballroom dancing in AAPI communities could be traced to the early twentieth century, in accordance with Yutian Wong, a professor of dance research at San Francisco State College. Thats when worldwide model ballroom dancing was formalized within the Nineteen Twenties and 4 dances the sluggish waltz, the foxtrot, the quickstep and the tango grew to become standardized by means of instruction and competitors, permitting for simple export.

Due to colonialism and cultural imperialism, Europeans and People introduced totally different types of ballroom dancing proper to Asia, Wong stated. Dance halls and jazz golf equipment grew to become in style in Shanghai through the Nineteen Twenties. The French introduced tango to Vietnam within the 30s, and the dance model additionally grew to become a success in Japan.

Asian elites who traveled to Europe and the USA introduced dances again to their house nations. Ultimately, Wong says, ballroom dance got here to suggest modernity and upward mobility: It was related to a sure sort of educated class, that you just have been open to new concepts.

Renee Yu and James Kawasaki are dance partners who met at Just Dance Ballroom in Oakland.

Renee Yu and James Kawasaki are dance companions who met at Simply Dance Ballroom in Oakland.

Andria Lo/Particular to The Chronicle

Within the century since, Asian People and Asian immigrants who arrived within the U.S. within the Fifties and 60s have picked up the identical interest that was in style at house. Some realized as youngsters in cities like Hong Kong; others began quickly after retirement to remain busy.

Whereas ballroom dancing symbolized Western aspirations prior to now, within the U.S. it has come to characterize a special sort of AAPI immigrant story, considered one of neighborhood connection and self-reliance. At the moment, you’ll find ballroom dancing throughout Asian cultural areas: Filipino household gatherings, Vietnamese refugees in dance studios, Chinese language elders in banquet halls and neighborhood facilities.

Psychological well being and cha cha

Simply Dance neighborhood members are largely middle-upper class with assets to afford and decide to common social dancing. The studios most devoted dancers will pay upward of $700 a month for social dance events, courses and personal classes. However different aged Asian teams face totally different challenges.

Anni Chung is the president and CEO of Self-Assist for the Aged, a nonprofit that gives social providers to low-income Chinese language seniors in San Francisco. Chung joined the group within the late 70s and says there are roughly 50,000 Chinese language residents over the age of 60 within the metropolis.

If youre an older Chinese language immigrant in San Francisco, you need to undergo day-to-day life, typically by yourself with out the flexibility to talk English and unable to navigate a number of public advantages, Chung defined.

She says the goal of Self-Assistance is to supply them the instruments to be self-sufficient and lead dignified lives.

Twice-weekly free ballroom dancing courses are considered one of Self-Helps strategies for doing simply that.

Asian seniors apply their cha cha steps inside San Francisco’s South Sundown Neighborhood Middle at a category organized by Self-Assist for the Aged. Video: Cecilia Lei / The Chronicle

On a current sunny afternoon within the Outer Sundown, Chinese language retirees in face masks chatted in Cantonese and became their dancing sneakers contained in the South Sundown Neighborhood Middle at fortieth and Vicente streets.

There wasnt a disco ball spinning from the ceiling or smooth dance flooring. As an alternative, leftover Lunar New Yr decorations have been taped to the partitions alongside posters directing seniors to in-language social assets. Tables and chairs have been pushed to the aspect to create space for dancing, and workers members labored at their computer systems within the corners of the room whereas music performed from a small karaoke machine.

One of many dancers was Shirley Chan. On Thursdays and Fridays, Chan takes an 18 Muni bus to bounce despite the fact that touring by herself makes her nervous. These days, she leaves her Outer Sundown house solely through the daytime, and she or he carries a private security alarm and pepper spray.

Wearing a knitted shirt and flower-patterned skirt, Chan alternated between social dancing with companions and standing on the sidelines to teach others as they practiced the steps.

For 2, three years (due to) the pandemic, we stopped. After which after all, at house there was nothing to do, I used to be sort of depressed and afraid to stroll out due to the hatred, Chan stated.

The pandemic halted all in-person conferences organized by Self-Assist, with courses resuming solely in August. Chung stated it was a fragile time for Asian seniors within the metropolis who rely on social actions.

Our seniors are actually pushed to nearly imprison themselves in their very own little rooms or homes with out going exterior. That may be very, very unhealthy, to have all these fears pent up, Chung stated.

Self-Helps ballroom courses and different actions present a pathway for workers to construct rapport with seniors and supply a better venue to precise how theyre feeling due to stigmas round psychological well being points in Asian cultures, she added. Whereas dancing isnt an alternative choice to psychological well being care and assets, the actions present a much-needed respite from each day stress for a lot of Chinese language elders.

For these two hours, they overlook about their issues or worries. They costume as much as really feel good and dance with different seniors that they get to know within the middle, Chung stated. Its simply so beautiful to see them smiling, massive smiles from ear to ear.

Sacred area

Earlier than the pandemic, many San Francisco Chinese language residents additionally social danced inside Chinatowns banquet halls giant eating places that may host tons of for household celebrations and neighborhood gatherings. However banquet halls have been declining in San Francisco for years, leaving for suburbs like Millbrae or Burlingame or shuttering altogether.

For three hours on Thursdays and Sundays at Just Dance Ballroom in Oakland, dancers perfect their technique in rhumba, cha cha, waltz and tango while songs rotate between sultry ballroom instrumentals and American pop.

For 3 hours on Thursdays and Sundays at Simply Dance Ballroom in Oakland, dancers good their method in rhumba, cha cha, waltz and tango whereas songs rotate between sultry ballroom instrumentals and American pop.

Andria Lo/Particular to The Chronicle

New Asia, considered one of Chinatowns final legacy banquet eating places, was a significant native host of ballroom social dance occasions. However the dance area closed when the town went into lockdown through the pandemic, and proprietor Hon Son ultimately transformed the banquet corridor right into a grocery.

Now the constructing faces a brand new future.

The Metropolis of San Francisco purchased the property in 2016 to earmark for reasonably priced senior housing, and in 2021, the nonprofit Chinatown Neighborhood Growth Middle was chosen to develop the positioning the citys first new 100% reasonably priced housing improvement within the neighborhood in over 20 years.

Whereas housing is necessary, Malcolm Yeung, CCDCs govt director, says his group additionally heard broad consensus that restoring the banquet area was a prime precedence. He says its very important to protect reasonably priced, accessible areas for low-income Chinatown seniors to attach over celebrations and actions, like ballroom dancing.

Larger is best, stated Chan, who misses the massive dance flooring at New Asia. She used to bounce there about as soon as a month earlier than the pandemic. For ballroom, particularly waltz and tango, you want a number of room. If the place is small, youll bump one another!

Its not nearly having area to tango and socialize. Yeung says locations like dance studios, neighborhood facilities and banquet halls are the place seniors can construct their self-reliance.

When individuals come collectively like that, notably seniors, its additionally an area for them to appreciate their very own significance, their very own energy, their very own company and having the ability to direct their very own lives, Yeung stated. These are the sorts of areas and moments and occasions that may truly transfer you and your individual inner identification from sufferer to actor.

Again in Oakland, the neighborhood at Simply Dance refuses to let worry or threats of violence deter them from dancing, together with Jayne, one of many studios oldest dancers.

Ballroom dancers, they take every thing in stride, she stated. What the heck, you realize, life is brief. Would possibly as properly do what you may.

Just Dance Ballroom in Oakland draws scores of dancers for events on Thursdays and Sundays.

Simply Dance Ballroom in Oakland attracts scores of dancers for occasions on Thursdays and Sundays.

Andria Lo/Particular to The Chronicle

As one other social dance occasion winds down, the dance flooring empties and folks acquire their belongings and alter out of their dancing sneakers.

The music is off, and the room is a low murmur of Cantonese, Mandarin and English.

All people, go house! Manh declares into the microphone, eliciting laughter from the gang.

Dancer Brian Wong grins and declares its time to faan uk kei, sik fahn,or go house and eat dinner in Cantonese.

The dancers linger and chat for a couple of minutes earlier than pushing by means of the studios glass doorways towards the car parking zone.

Wong says hell hold coming to Simply Dance till he bodily cant.

Theres lower than 20 years left for all of us to be functioning and operating round, he stated. So, I wish to take pleasure in on a regular basis I can with my mates.

Take heed to dancer interviews and the music of social dance occasions on this podcast episode of Fifth & Mission.

Attain Cecilia Lei:

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