“Almost everything is better, when you share the experience with someone else. “
I’ve always been amazed by the intensity and passion tango dancers have. The mesmerizing moves, the music, the poise, the flow. I’m a believer that art is a form of communication, it doesn’t really matter how “talented” you can be but how passionate you are. Dance is definitely a way to communicate through your body expressions, tango is one those areas where improvisation is key. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting with the founder of Guardia Vieja, Pooja Kumar and their lead teacher Mauro Peralta, from Austin Urban Tango, who are passionate about making the tango scene in Austin, Texas relevant and memorable through a variety of art and culture events. I love that Guardia Vieja wants to bring people together to enjoy a practice that might be considered glamorous or distant. Tango is for everybody who wants to express themselves through beautiful moves and music, for people who wants to socialize and learn the cultural aspects of this form of dance. They are hosting a number of events things like Beginner Bootcamps, Crash Courses, and Expansion Series. This also includes exposing more people to Argentine music, with things like their concert event with El Cachivache this September 2018. Please keep on scrolling and let them tell you their amazing work and story, and if you are interested in joining their events don’t miss out on the discount code at the end of this read! Tango on…
- Who are you and what do you do?
Mauro: My name is Mauro Peralta. I am an Argentine Tango Dancer, Performer and Instructor. I started dancing/teaching Tango in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1998. Given my curiosity for other cultures, people, and food, I combined my love of tango with an eagerness to explore the world and started touring to teach in other countries in 2004. In addition to Tango, I am certified as a Gyrotonics Level 1 instructor. I am now based in Austin, Texas and continue to teach both Tango and Gyrotonics.
Pooja: My name is Pooja Kumar. I have held a variety of roles during my long career in Anti Money Laundering and Counter Terrorist Financing Compliance. However, that is only part of what I do. I am also a social Argentine Tango dancer. This past February, I took this passion and turned it into a small business by creating Guardia Vieja, which aims to continually expose more people to Argentine Tango in order to create memorable shared experiences in Austin.
- Where did you grow up and how does that shape what you do today?
Mauro: I grew up in a number of cities in Argentina. Although Berazategui was my primary city, I would visit relatives living in other cities during the summer or spring breaks. This gave me exposure to a variety of perspectives, as I talked to and learned from my aunts, uncles, and cousins. This is something I still carry with me a curiosity to learn more and more about different people’s perspectives.
This early exposure to traveling also sparked my curiosity for traveling to get to know other cities and places. I knew early on that I always was planning to live in another country and so when I found Tango, it was the perfect match for me to achieve all this plans of traveling the world and meeting people.
Pooja: I grew up in Edison, New Jersey. It’s a town (maybe at this point even a small city) that I have really seen transform throughout my childhood and into early adulthood. I remember Edison was once identified as the most diverse town in the United States by Rolling Stones magazine. It sits in central Jersey between New York and Philadelphia, neighboring Rutgers University. While growing up, it was truly a melting pot. It was made up of mostly immigrants, families of commuters to New York for work, and intellectuals from all over the world going to or teaching at the university. Despite all of our differences, we seemed to find harmony, living together in this town. We were a community that had parties every Saturday night, friendly soccer games, and cultural exchanges through food and music.
I know the city itself is now changing and I see the world starting to grow apart, but I think my childhood experiences might have created ‘rose colored’ lenses with which I view the world. And I’m not sure I would have it any other way. It is what drives me to consistently believe that we, as humans, are just that and can come together to have shared human experiences. I see a lot more similarities than differences and embrace all people. It’s become one of Guardia Vieja’s pillars to create a space to bring people together with shared experiences.
- How did you become passionate about tango?
Mauro: I’m not sure if I really became passionate about Tango. I am a passionate person, so I really can’t do anything halfway. When I decided to do Tango I couldn’t do it halfway, either. Don’t get me wrong, I am very passionate about Tango, but it wasn’t really a path to becoming passionate.
Pooja: I’m not sure that it was a process. It was sort of love at first sight. Shortly after graduating from law school, one of my best friends mentioned that he wanted to make a documentary about Tango and he thought it might be a good idea to take a class if he was going to make a movie about it. He didn’t necessarily feel comfortable taking the class with anyone, so he asked me to take it with him. I agreed.
At the end of the first class, he said “I still want to make a movie about this, but I hate doing it!” I replied, “Well I didn’t know what I was getting into and now, I love it!” He hasn’t made that documentary, but I would say that first class is where the passion began and it was instantaneous.
- What skills or talents do you need to dance tango?
Mauro: I don’t think there is a need for skills or talent. Everything can be learned in life. Just a matter of immersing yourself into it and eventually you will get it.
Pooja: I agree with Mauro. I don’t think there are any particular skills or talents needed. Just a willingness and an open mind. This may get re-stated, but I would also add patience. Our Crash Course will give you a lot in just two day, but Argentine Tango does take time. Eight years later, I am still learning a lot and it might be another ten before I start feeling like any sort of expert, but I enjoy the process and stay open to learning new things all the time.
- How would you describe the cultural aspect of tango?
Mauro: It’s hard for me to say. The culture of Tango itself starts in Buenos Aires (Argentina), and then it spreads to Europe, and then eventually the United States. The reality is the culture of tango is constantly changing, and evolving, similar to life, but the source is in Argentina. Since I have not lived in Buenos Aires for over a decade, I’m not sure that I can accurately answer what the culture of Tango is like today.
Pooja: I’m not sure I fully understand this question. In some ways, I agree with Mauro. Argentine Tango certainly begins in Buenos Aires and slowly spreads, and maybe diffuses, as it moves out to Europe, the United States, and the rest of the world. Having said that I don’t think that it is actually one big culture, with a single source of truth.
Many people make this analogy about Tango that it is like a language and then there are these dialects. In some respects that might be true, as each country or region I have travelled to does have its own ‘dialect’ that is influenced by that location’s culture. However, I think of it more like painting or drawing. There are some basic truths and principles, which is what helps us identify it as Tango, but there is a lot of space for interpretation. Just as you might love a Van Gogh in a museum, it doesn’t prohibit you from loving your child or grandchild’s drawing from Art class. With that in mind, it’s hard to talk about the cultural aspect of Tango, without more clearly identifying the scope of what we are talking – performances, social dancing, the music – there are a lot of cultural aspects that Tango touches.
- What is your ideology as a creative person?
Mauro: To stay creative, you have to remain a little irresponsible. Maybe that’s not the right word, exactly. Being a part of the ‘real adult world’, having a job, working for someone else … these things make me feel numb. In order to stay creative I think it is important to work for one self and not get so tied up in what others think might be the right way. Maybe not irresponsible, exactly, but to believe in my self and live in the world the ‘dreamworld’ that I see.
Pooja: My ideology is based on five core values that create the foundation of Guardia Vieja:
- Shared Experiences: Almost everything is better, when you share the experience with someone else. Tango is a shared experience and cannot be fully realized without embracing other people and communicating with them. Guardia Vieja itself wouldn’t be possible without partnerships, like with Mauro or Jessica (of Ideology).
- Old School: Progress is not always the same as running away from the past. There are lots of lessons to be learned from prior generations. I remember reading an article a year ago, where they had identified the majority of college kids had not experienced a house party as anything more than a reference from 90’s movies. It makes me sad to think about how isolated people are nowadays, having moved away from things like ‘cooking together’ or ‘hosting a party’. To clarify, I am not old fashioned either – there are plenty of negative aspects about the past. However, the modern day dinner table, surrounded by friends and partners of various orientations, is still an old school concept that should not be replaced with microwaveable dinners. I think it’s important to take the good and move forward with it. Leaving these things behind is not true progress or growth and will generally stagnate creativity. Creativity is not always about being different from what exists, but it’s about enhancing it.
- Harmony: My point of view is not the only one. In fact, I might have tunnel vision, if I only ever see things from my perspective. This doesn’t mean I have to consistently abandon my own thoughts for others, but to the extent there is a way to incorporate multiple points of view, I should stop, listen, and try my best to.
- Expression: Bottled up creativity is stifling. It is important to have a safe space for expression to work through all the ideas that we have as people. Tango is my form of expression and by supporting others in their forms, I continue to enhance my own, but to stay at home because I will never be a professional dancer or to assume I am not truly creative enough to express myself through dance would be no way to live.
- Integrity: Integrity is dichotomous for me. The first aspect is honesty. I want to consistently get and be able to give honest feedback, which may at times be harsh, but is the only way to progress and get better. Second, it is important to stand your ground and as a creative understand your self worth, even when others may not. I started Guardia Vieja as a small business rather than a non-profit, because I believe in the power and value of Tango. This is not a charitable service and I expect those participating in the experience, as teachers, DJs, social dancers, photographers, etc. to be valued for the service they provide, so we can continue to operate with a high level of integrity.
- How do you overcome your fears?
Mauro: By having awareness of them and then leaving them alone. Eventually, the fear passes. It may take a longer or shorter period of time, but leaving them alone diminishes their power, as over time they disappear or you learn to live with them. The important thing is not focusing on the fear so much that it freezes you.
Pooja: I would have to agree with Mauro on this one. As long as I’m not frozen in my tracks, I know there will come a time when I will move past them. “Progress not perfection,” as a manager of mine used to say. It’s about taking the the time and appreciating the small victories along the way.
- In what way have you changed by dancing tango?
Mauro: I don’t think Tango has changed me, if that’s the question. I am a person who believes in continually evolving. Tango has helped me evolve in one way, but I think I would be the same person, a person who believes in growth, even if I had chosen to do something else. Tango has, however, given me a greater sense of understanding people, which might be a harder skill to learn through other disciplines that are more ‘self’ oriented.
Pooja: Many ways! Tango for me is a vehicle for growth. It helps me examine myself and my interactions with others, creating a more meaningful understanding of both. When I have a problem, at work, at home, or in another situation, it generally helps me find a solution that makes sense. I’m not saying it’s a magic eight ball and gives me answers right away, but it helps me think through things and raises my awareness in all aspects of life.
- Who inspires you today?
Mauro: Life inspires me, always. In particular, the continual discoveries around how human science works with our brain and body movement capacities.
Pooja: Beginners! I love meeting people who are starting something new. It doesn’t even have to be Tango, but there is something so vulnerable, rewarding, and exciting about watching people learn something new. I love those light bulb moments in our classes, when people have an epiphany. It’s electrifying and re-energizes my own desire to keep learning new things.
- What’s your goal with Guardia Vieja?
Pooja: My goal with Guardia Vieja is to create memorable shared experiences by invigorating the Argentine Tango scene in Austin through a variety of events. These include things like introducing people to dancing Tango with our Beginner Bootcamps, Crash Courses, and Expansion Series. It also includes exposing more people to the music, with things like our concert event with El Cachivache this September. We aim to host a number of Pop Up Milongas (social events) over the next couple of years to showcase Austin as a destination city for Argentine Tango in the United States. I hope to create a space where whether you want to dance or just come and socialize, you can come share the Argentine Tango experience with us.
Mauro: I am partnering with Guardia Vieja, because I want to see Argentine Tango grow in Austin and the United States. Similar to Pooja, I would like for more people to have exposure to both the dance and the music. My goal is to ensure that Tango stays alive and continues to grow as a cultural experience and form of dance.
- How is tango perceived in this country?
Mauro: Hmmm… I think there are different perceptions out there, and it might really depend on the person. The one that stands out the most to me is that many people think that Argentine Tango is actually the same as it is in ballroom. The US has a strong culture around ballroom dancing and ballroom has their version of ‘Argentine Tango’. I once asked a ballroom instructor to show me ‘Argentine Tango’ and it is completely different to what we are doing. Ballroom is learning a choreography and Argentine Tango is more of an improvisation. While both require you to move your body, that’s really where the similarities end.
Pooja: I think there are two major stereotypes. In part, I agree with Mauro that shows like ‘Dancing with the Stars’ or ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ have shaped some of the perception. These shows glamorize and put Tango on a pedestal. Argentine Tango is an accessible dance for people of all ages and backgrounds and I wish more people could see it that way. I have danced with Parkinson’s patients and I have danced with teenagers. There is really a wide spectrum of people and capabilities. If you are open to it, anyone can learn tango, not just celebrities, dancers, and former athletes.
The second aspect of it is that it is commonly understood that Tango is a ‘sexy’ and ‘sultry’ dance. It absolutely can be, but that isn’t what it always is. A lot of people talk about this mysterious ‘connection’ in Tango, but to me it’s more of a means of communication. It is a way to express the music and yourself to another person and that person could be a friend, a relative, a stranger – it isn’t necessarily a boyfriend, girlfriend, wife, or husband. Again, not that it can’t be, but it’s not just for couples, it’s for everyone.
- What advice about dancing tango have you happily ignored?
Mauro: “Quit tango; go to College; and ‘do something’ with your life.”
Pooja: I was once told by someone that if I wanted to get more dances at milongas (social events), I need to change the way I dress (They were leaning towards more provocatively.). I am happy to report that I wear whatever I want, including jeans and a T-shirt and one time I even hosted a New Year’s Eve Milonga in Seattle, where everyone wore their PJ’s. I prefer to not dance with people who are more interested in what I wear than how I dance or who I am.
- What is the best piece of advice you would give to someone who wants to start dancing tango?
Mauro: Be patient and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
Pooja: Agreed, with Mauro. To be honest, there are no mistakes – it’s all one big improvisation.
- How much can you improvise when you tango?
Mauro: A lot 🙂
Pooja: (Laughs out loud) See the prior answer. 🙂
- How do you implement the knowledge you’ve gained from tango into your daily life?
Mauro: Well, I teach tango every day, so it’s hard to separate it from my daily life. It is a part of my daily life, without trying to implement the knowledge I gain from it.
Pooja: Honestly, it shapes a lot of how I communicate and interact with people. Given it’s improvisational nature, Tango teaches me how to be perceptive of what someone needs or wants. It continues to teach me how to communicate back what I need and want (something I’m not always, as good at). As a follower, I have learned to listen; however ‘listening’ doesn’t make me a passive party to the conversation. I play a part in offering a response through my own movement and interjecting my own ideas within the direction that a leader has provided to me. Similarly, a really good lead is one that can adjust to the information I am providing, as well, about how I might hear the music, my own physical capabilities or sensitivities. This respectful give and take of communication has found its way into my professional career in the Financial Services and FinTech Compliance space, as well as my interactions with friends and in relationships.
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