A house filled with tango

The moon shines in a dark blue sky over the San Francisco Bay. From the top of the hill I can see a million lights shimmering and reflecting in the water. As I stroll down the steep and windy road, past lush gardens hiding comfortable homes, I can hear tango music softly drifting through the air. On this balmy night, the doors from the dance floor to the terrace are open. There is the faint sound of subdued talk and laughter. As I approach the tall, multi-level house and begin to climb the steep staircase, the sounds become more distinct. I’m climbing up two, then three flights, catching my breath before approaching the last one, until at last there I am. I’m gazing at a several dozen dancers swirling around the floor and, on one side of the large room an enormous buffet bearing an overwhelming amount of delicacies. It is Friday night and a wonderful event has just begun.

The party is a by-invitation-only milonga, hosted by Sandra Kistler and Gregory White at their exquisite home in the Oakland Hills. It started about two years ago after the couple had met and decided to open the vast space of Sandra’s house to the tango community. Their aim was to create a monthly event in the tradition of a European-style salon. “We found that a lot of people in tango don’t actually know who they are dancing with,” says Greg, “unless they already are good friends.” Add to this the fact that people don’t get together for big dinners — and the idea was born for the “houseTango”. They started to invite a number of dancers from the community for “dinner and dance” on one Friday of the month. It immediately drew not just their friends, but also a large number of tango aficionados from the Bay Area tango community. The intimate setting of a milonga at their private home — which presents itself as the perfect space for entertainment with a large dance floor, elevated stage area for musicians, a grand piano, and spectacular views of the Bay — was an immediate attraction, just as were the culinary delights.

In the beginning Greg himself volunteered as the chef, preparing an enormous amount of paella, with friends bringing appetizers, desserts, and drinks to complete the buffet. After dinner, people would get up and start to dance. Some of the local tango DJ’s played the tunes for the night. But soon, word spread, and what had started as a small, semi-private event drew more than 80 attendees every month, with people coming from as far away as San Luis Obispo, Monterey, Sacramento, and the North Bay. The couple was getting concerned on how to handle the crowd. They began to ask for a donation, and then proceeded to set a fee to cover their own expenses and to pay for the tango musicians they now had started to hire. “We were hoping that would be a better way of controlling the number of people who would attend. But the contrary happened,” explains Greg, “even more people started showing up!”

And the monthly parties are only one aspect of what has now become a much larger project called “houseTango”. “It is a community of musicians, dancers, teachers, and organizers who are related to Argentine tango,” as Greg formulates it. It includes the monthly milonga, a scholarship for promising tango dancers, and a soon-to-come website for tango dancers.

“How does the scholarship work?” I want to know. Greg explains that both he and Sandra pick an aspiring young tango dancer: somebody who is talented, and they support him or her. This month’s scholarship was awarded to Dina Zarif, a young vocal talent and beginning tango dancer who sang to piano accompaniment during the salon at the house. Sandra Kistler had acquired on behalf of “houseTango” the scholarship for Dina in the form a full-day festival pass for the upcoming Official USA Argentine Tango Championship. The certificate was presented by Andrea Monti, the organizer of the Tango Festival.

But there is a lot more to come. The next goal for “houseTango” is a comprehensive website which, according to Greg, is going to be not only an improvement of the long-existing and popular TangoMango site but also a social media site for tango dancers. People will be able to create their own profiles, post news about themselves, and search for tango events. “The site will be geo-mapped”, explains Greg, “so people can find their way conveniently to events nearby or far away.” They should also be able to see which of their friends are attending which event at any particular day, thereby making it easier to connect with their favorite dance partners. The site will have different sections for social dancers and professionals, organizers and performers. There will also be tickets for tango events on sale. “We want to make it a common marketplace for tango dancers”, says Greg, “where people can find everything without having to browse the web.” The site has its own domain name: www.housetango.com and is already in its beta version.

And there are more plans for “houseTango”. A separate apartment in their private home will be reserved and rented for a special monthly rent to tango dancers who qualify for a scholarship. There are plans for using part of the space for yoga or pilates classes, art exhibitions and practicas. But this may not happen for a while. For now, the couple has its hands full by organizing and hosting the much beloved monthly parties at their home. “It takes weeks to prepare for each event”, says Greg, “and it always takes us a couple of days to recover afterwards.” He says it with a smile on his face though. And I can tell that they both love it, especially Sandra who glows with excitement every month as she opens the doors to her house: “That’s what this house is for”, she told me one evening as the crowd had taken over her kitchen, dance floor, the lounge area upstairs and the terraces, and all the sofas and chairs had been taken by her guests while she herself was sitting on the stairs to rest her feet for a moment, “it’s supposed to be filled with life and dance and people having a good time.”

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