Gulf War Vet Turns to Tango to Heal Hidden Wounds - San Francisco VA Health Care System
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San Francisco VA Health Care System


Gulf War Vet Turns to Tango to Heal Hidden Wounds

Tango dancers

There will be a free Tango demo and workshop for Veterans on Wednesday, January 14, 2015 from 1 – 2:15 p.m. at the Veterans Commons Dining Area at 150 Otis Street S. in San Francisco. For more information about the workshop, contact instructor Maestro Ivan Shvarts at

By Kellie Burdette Mendonca, Public Affairs Specialist
Monday, January 5, 2015

From the suburbs of Buenos Aires in Argentina, where sailors danced with local girls; from elite salons in Paris to Tango Teas in London at the Waldorf Hotel, to its worldwide popularity today, Tango has been a dance that brings people together and liberates them. Women in Paris were said to abandon their corsets to dance the Tango. Hat designs were altered so the feathers wouldn’t get in a Tango partner’s face. Men wore street-tough attire: slouch hat, high-heeled boots, double-breasted suits and silk scarves.

Tango throughout the ages has been a timeless dance that connects humans. And for at least one Veteran, Tango is also a dance that heals the body and the mind.

After serving for over a decade in the Navy as an aircraft technician, Skyler D. had moved to San Francisco as a civilian and worked in robotics as a field service engineer.

The Gulf War Veteran, a fitness trainer, studied theater at night and became a film actor and director. “I did that for many years until things started falling apart. I wasn’t getting a grip on my post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” says Skyler. “I didn’t really deal with the things that occurred in the military. It comes to a point where everything comes falling down like a house of cards. That’s what happened.”

One day Skyler was visiting San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, contemplating life, accompanied by loyal companion “Frieda Rome” the Basset hound. It was a welcome break from a recent hospitalization at the San Francisco VA Medical Center. After having healed from many painful life experiences, Skyler was alone, grappling with an unexplained brain lesion and fearing that life was coming to an end.

At that moment, Skyler met Tango instructor Ivan Shvarts. “Ivan comes walking up with another dog built like Frieda, and actually started the conversation,” says Skyler. “He asked what I was doing there on the beach and I said, ‘Actually I’m in the hospital for a spot on my brain stem.’ He said, ‘Ah, all you need is dark chocolate, a good glass of wine, and a beautiful woman to hold you, and that’s all you need!’ And I thought, well, that sounds great!”

Post hospital stay, Skyler started taking Tango lessons from Ivan, who teaches Tango throughout the Bay Area for Veterans, the elderly and disabled. Skyler became inspired. “Tango is about being able to trust your partner, and them trust you, and you taking that responsibility is very empowering. Tango is about intimacy. It’s about communication and dialogue, and together interpreting, speaking to each other through this music by improvising how you’re feeling. All of those elements of Tango played a huge role in my emotions, and I felt like writing again.”

“It’s a very empowering process to learn this dance, because you have to put combinations together by your feelings, and you’re responsible for your dance partner as you move them around the dance floor,” says Skyler. “You dress differently. Ivan, he’s a very dapper dancer. Within a month he said to me, ‘Skyler, I’ve got some suits and blazers for you to wear.’ Now when I go to Tango I actually dress up.”

Today, with continued VA therapy and Tango, Skyler’s PTSD symptoms are under control and unexplainably, the brain lesion has disappeared. Skyler is writing again, and a film that Skyler wrote, starred in and directed--“Hero Mars”--has won an award at a film festival in New York. Tango instructor Ivan is proud of his student-turned-instructor.

“In nearly 7 years of teaching, I have encountered numerous people with disabilities whose lives were positively influenced by Tango,” says Ivan. “For some patients, the gains were transformative. Data on Tango for the elderly and disabled are accumulating. The ability of Tango to improve mood and cognitive status has seen it used therapeutically for patients with PTSD, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and other conditions.”

“Programs like these are important to the health and well-being of our Veterans,” says SFVAMC Social Worker Dan Evenhouse, LCSW. “Tango introduces movement, musicality, and social interaction. It provides an effective way of reconnecting people with their bodies and with other people. It builds friendships and morale. Tango also enhances balance, stability, and coordination for Veterans of all ages and abilities.”

“Being an assistant instructor in Tango and also a dancer in Tango is going to help me even further with my PTSD therapy because I’m now having people who trust me, and they’re coming to me and Ivan because they want us to show them something,” says Skyler. “When we give that gift to them, they give it to their partner. So it becomes this very shared experience for all of us. That’s my expectation and that is my hope with all of our classes, that it is a shared experience that we all feel good about ourselves, about how we’re helping each other, and how we’re dancing, and when we walk out—how we feel in the world.”

Founder of the nonprofit Golden Age Tango Academy Ivan Shvarts, and assistant instructor Skyler will be hosting a free Tango demo and workshop for Veterans on Wednesday, January 14, 2015 from 1 – 2:15 p.m. at the Veterans Commons Dining Area at 150 Otis Street S. in San Francisco. For more information about the workshop, contact Maestro Ivan at (415) 760-9374 or


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