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Así se baila el tango

Tangos about tangos are a distinct sub-genre of tango song, a reminder that tango is not all angst and homesickness. Marvil's Así se baila el tango is perhaps the most loved, arraying the working class "true tango" against the showiness of upper class newcomers. Marvil is, incidentally, the nom de plume of Elizardo Martínez Vilas, combining the first syllables of his surnames (reminiscent of how some lunfardo, the Argentine street slang, is formed). Renée and John enjoyed reciting these lively lyrics, which were danced to afterward in the classic Tanturi-Castillo version, courtesy of DJ La Turca. Live music for the evening was by Emilio Tuebal (piano), Federico Diaz (guitar), and Eduardo Parra (voice).

Así se baila el tango (1942)
Letra de Marvil
Música de Elías Randal

That’s How to Dance the Tango (1942)
Lyrics by Marvil, trans. J. Osburn
Music by Elías Randal

¡Qué saben los pitucos, lamidos y shushetas!
¡Qué saben lo que es tango, qué saben de compás!
Aquí está la elegancia. ¡Qué pinta! ¡Qué silueta!
¡Qué porte! ¡Qué arrogancia! ¡Qué clase pa'bailar!
Así se corta el césped mientras dibujo el ocho,
para estas filigranas yo soy como un pintor.
Ahora una corrida, una vuelta, una sentada...
¡Así se baila el tango, un tango de mi flor!

If only they knew, the dandies, show offs, and the effete!
If just they knew the tango, if just they knew the beat!
Look here! there’s the elegance! what a look! what a figure is cut!
What bearing! What arrogance! How classy the dance!
I’m tracing an ocho like I’m trimmin’ the lawn,
I’m just like a painter, w’ those squiggles I have drawn!
An’ then runnin’, an’ turnin’, an’ sittin’ on m’ shin…
That’s how to dance the tango, a tango of my own!
Así se baila el tango,
Sintiendo en la cara,
La sangre que sube
A cada compás,
Mientras el brazo,
Como una serpiente,
Se enrosca en el talle
Que se va a quebrar.
Así se baila el tango,
Mezclando el aliento,
Cerrando los ojos
Pa' escuchar mejor,
Cómo los violines
Le cuentan al fueye
Por qué desde esa noche
Malena no cantó.

That’s how to dance the tango,
To feel it in your face,
The blood that always surges
To every single beat,
Arm round the torso
Like a serpent embracing,
The ribs and waist enlacing
That soon are gonna bend.
That’s how to dance the tango,
Your breath is sympatico,
Your eyelids closed and shut
To listen better to
How the violins speak
To the bandoneon
Of why from that very night on
Malena didn’t sing.

¿Será mujer o junco, cuando hace una quebrada?
¿Tendrá resorte o cuerda para mover los pies?
Lo cierto es que mi prenda, que mi "peor es nada",
Bailando es una fiera que me hace enloquecer...
A veces me pregunto si no será mi sombra
Que siempre me persigue, o un ser sin voluntad.
¡Pero es que ya ha nacido así, pa' la milonga
Y, como yo, se muere, se muere por bailar!

Will she be woman or a reed, when we bend so deep and wide?
Will she have spring or a string to move the feet ’cross the floor?
It’s that my “worst is nothing,” this lady at my side,
She dances like a wild thing, and it drives me to distraction…
I ask me at times if she’ll be my shadow till I’ve died,
That follows me forever, like a creature without a will.
It’s that she was born to the milonga, for tango cut and dried,
And, like me, she’ll die for tango, give up life to dance!
Listen to the Castillo-Tanturi version here:

The names of conventional dance moves and figures are known among tangueros, although perhaps not universally. They are near impossible to translate concisely and precisely, especially if rendering poetical features such as assonance and rhyme is also a priority. So I left ocho, although “figure eight” would have fit easily into the line; it is probably the best known tango figure and changing it felt condescending. Conversely, I translated corridita, vuelta, and sentada in the seventh line, partly to follow Marvil's pattern of making each word in the line end with the same sound (“a” in the Spanish, “n” in my English). “Knee” would have been better than “shin,” literally, but I wanted the n. Quebrada, a tango term that begins the last stanza, is translated with reasonable fidelity to the move, rather than as “break,” which is frequently done. As is often the case with the letras, the final verse is not sung, at least in any version I’ve found, but is subtext for the whole.
—John Osburn