Even though it was a chilly winter morning outside on the Peninsula, a dance floor was heating up inside as the next session of "Tango for Veterans" brought out seniors from a variety of military branches to a veteran's hall in San Bruno.
Ivan Shvarts, the founder of the program, strode across the dance floor with Air Force Veteran Grace David and directed partners to step this way and then that - and then back again.
"I was dancing tango for many years,” Shvarts said. "My mother was a bali and tango dancer. She always wanted me to take on tango. Her last words were, ‘go and learn tango.’" And after retiring from architecture and building, that is exactly what Shvarts did.
In 2005, he began to instruct a senior's tango class in Emeryville, and years later, he founded the Golden Age Tango Academy.
Now he works as an instructor, bringing tango to programs with the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department as well as San Francisco Veterans Affairs.
"Ivan Shvarts had been running the Golden Tango Academy for some time - it’s a nonprofit - and he wanted to serve veterans,” Dan Evenhouse, director of community services and a therapist at the San Francisco VA Health Care System, said.
Evenhouse began connecting Shvarts to local halls such as the American Legion in San Bruno where he could host dance lessons.
"The dance instructor does it for free for veterans so it makes sense for to put them in a veteran’s hall," Lonnie Sopko, Commander of American Legion Post 409, said. "Things to help the community, get vets back involved in things. When you first get out, you're not too anxious to get involved in stuff, but after a couple years you start relaxing a little but and then all of a sudden, you find out were here and the comradeship comes back and it really makes it nice."
Many of the participants at the tango class in San Bruno come from the nearby veterans clinic, but the program attracts different crowds at its five locations around the Bay Area.
"The self-esteem, self-worth, self-importance and physical ability and mental ability all comes from tango - dancing tango," Shvarts said.
There's something to that, the therapist said. "Creative pursuits" as it turns out makes a world of difference.
"Our folks who are involved in this program, they have measurable impacts on their lives," he said. "Their health gets better, they're getting more exercise, they're socializing more. That improves their mood and other mental health problems so it's a really great fit for what we want to do,” Evenhouse said.
However, the dance instructor didn't need to see the science behind it to know. Shvarts says he sees it first hand.
"I found that people got involved for different reasons. People with disability, people with all kind of physical and mental illnesses so I see that yes, this dance makes them well and happy," Shvarts said. "The community of tango and the wellness and the musicality and all of these good things you can learn for life."
Interested veterans can attend for free or $10 to the general public by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.