poesía de gotán:

Así se baila el tango (1942)

This Is How to Dance Tango
lyrics by “Marvil” (Elizardo Martínez Vilas)
music by Elías Randal

What do those rich kids,
snobs and fashionistas know?
What do they know about tango,
what do they know about rhythm?

Here is elegance:
What a look! What presence!
What poise! What arrogance!
What classy dancing!*
This is how to dance tango:
when I draw an ocho
marking these filigrees
I’m like a painter.
And now a run of steps,
a turn, a pose—
This is how to dance tango,
a tango that blooms for me.

This is how to dance tango:
feel in your face
the blood that rises
with every beat
while your arm
like a serpent,
surrounds the waist
that’s going to bend.

This is how to dance tango:
our breath melding,
our eyes closing,
the better to listen
to the violins
telling the bandoneón
why Malena has not sung
since that one night.

Orquesta Ricardo Tanturi, singer Alberto Castillo (1942)

*The original Spanish says “qué clase pa’ bailar” which is a double entendre. It can either mean “what classy dancing” as it appears above, or “here’s a lesson (class) on how to dance.”

(Spanish original after the jump)

Así se baila el tango

¿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 baila el tango,
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!

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
para oír mejor
cómo los violines
le dicen al fueye
por qué desde esa noche
Malena no cantó.

About Derrick Del Pilar

Born and raised in Chicago, I came to the tango while studying at the Universidad de Belgrano in Buenos Aires in 2006. In 2008 I earned my B.A. with majors in Creative Writing and Spanish & Portuguese from the University of Arizona, and in 2009 I earned an M.A. in Latin American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. My specialty is the history & literature of early 20th century Argentina.


7 thoughts on “Así se baila el tango (1942)

  1. Derrick,

    I’m happy to have discovered your blog with translations of tango lyrics. There are so many Americans who dance tango without understanding the lyrics.

    There was a recent comment on a tango blog that “Tangos are written in Lunfardo, not in Spanish.” I hope that you will comment on this statement in a future post and tackle a tango in Lunfardo. I was told by Nelida Rouchetto of Fundacion La Casa del Tango in Buenos Aires that there are some tangos in pure Lunfardo, others with only a few words, and more written in Castellano Argentino.

    I enjoy the process of translating a tango that interests me and have included a few on my blog. I look forward to reading your translations, since there are very few sources for accurate ones. To my knowledge, Mr. McGarry isn’t fluent in Castellano, so his wife does the translations for his website.

    Tango Chamuyo
    Buenos Aires

    Posted by jantango | 04.14.2009, 5:03 PM
    • Hello Janis,
      Thank you for commenting! I am glad you enjoy the site.
      On the subject of tangos written in Lunfardo: I am actually preparing a page to go up on the title that will address this issue, but thanks for bringing it up :). But here’s the preliminary rough outline of what I’m going to say.
      From a linguist’s point of view, Lunfardo is not a separate “language” from Argentine Spanish, not in the way that Catalan (spoken in Barcelona and northeastern Spain) is a separate language from Castilian (castellano, the language of Madrid and Spanish-speaking Latin America).
      Lunfardo is a lexicon: that is, a special subset of words—often based on borrowings from Italian, French, and any of the other languages spoken by immigrants—coined by the marginal population of Buenos Aires in the early 20th century to refer to things in their experience. Lunfardo words, however, conform to the grammatical structure of castellano argentino. Thus a Lunfardo verb like piantarse will be conjugated yo me pianto, vos te piantás, ella se pianta, etc. (as in, “como se pianta la vida”).
      Each tango uses Lunfardo words to a greater or lesser degree…now, of course, a large number of Lunfardo words makes the tango almost incomprehensible, even to a native Spanish speaker, often even to one from Argentina.
      I like to make a parallel with Lewis Carroll’s famous nonsense poem, “Jabberwocky.” Here’s the first verse:

      Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
      All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

      Now, the nonsense words in this passage conform to the sound system of English (that is, there aren’t any words like vrklat, which we would recognize as not allowed in our language)…but they don’t make any sense, because we don’t know what they mean! Yet if I asked you what part of speech outgrabe is, you would be able to tell me that it is a verb in the past tense. Slithy, of course, is an adjective modifying the noun toves.
      But without footnotes, the terms are semantically empty to us. That is, we know the relationships between the words, we know their functions, but we don’t know what their real-world referents are—and the poem is nonsense because there are no real world referents.
      And so it is with Lunfardo…a modern speaker of Spanish, in Argentina and elsewhere, will recognize a song written with a lot of Lunfardo words as castellano, but he won’t be able to tell you quite what it means. Unlike the words in “Jabberwocky,” however, lunfardismos have real world referents. And the milongueros are the only ones who have access to the footnotes built into their brains, because they’ve used these words since they were kids.
      This is what makes translating lunfardismos so difficult for someone outside of Argentina. There are some good Lunfardo dictionaries, like José Gobello’s, but like any slang the words often have flexible meanings. What they precisely indicate is largely dependent on context…and without a milonguero to ask, there’s sometimes no way to tell.
      So I invite you to correct any and all errors you see in my renderings of Lunfardo words, or to leave more comments. I count on the generous help of folks like you and Rick & Alejandra who are down there with the milongueros and interact with them on a daily basis—a rare privilege.
      That comment was way longer than I expected. Whew! Time to turn it into a page.
      Derrick Del Pilar

      Posted by poesiadegotan | 04.14.2009, 6:33 PM
  2. Derrick,

    Thanks to Sara Melul and Roberto Cruanas, translating Lunfardo got easier last year when they published Mataburros, the first Lunfardo-English dictionary. When I don’t find a word in a Spanish dictionary, I refer to a dictionary of Argentine speech. If I don’t find the word there, I go to the Lunfardo dictionary. I need the three references for everyday conversation and tango.

    One example of a Lunfardo word used commonly in everyday speech is “plata” for money instead of dinero. This and other Lunfardo words are part of my vocabulary because I hear them used by friends.


    Posted by jantango | 04.15.2009, 2:38 AM
    • Hi Janis,
      It’s important to note that simply because an Argentine uses a certain non-standard Spanish word, it doesn’t mean that it’s Lunfardo. It’s only Lunfardo if only an Argentine (more specifically, a porteño) would use/understand it. I first heard plata long before I lived in Argentina from my Cuban and Mexican friends in Chicago, and it’s in my Larousse standard Spanish dictionary of 1983 as slang for dinero. Some slang is region-specific, while other slang is used wherever a certain language is used (“okay” has now become universal almost everywhere that English is spoken). I’m not a historical linguist, though, so I can’t say whether plata originated in Argentina. Though saying “silver” for “money” isn’t that big of a stretch.
      I haven’t seen this Mataburros dictionary–I will have to add it to my collection!
      José Gobello, founder of the Academia Porteña del Lunfardo, published a Lunfardo-Spanish dictionary, first in 1975, then re-released with substantial revisions in 1990 and 2004. That is my reference and handy companion.

      Posted by poesiadegotan | 04.15.2009, 8:48 AM
      • Derrick,

        You make a good point that it’s only Lunfardo if a porteno uses/understands it. “Plata” is included in the Lunfardo-English dictionary, so I used it as an example. Mataburros is the Lunfardo term for dictionary according to the authors.

        Gobello is recognized as THE authority of Lunfardo. I find it interesting that a group of academics have dedicated their time to the study and preservation of Lunfardo and finally received recognition for it last year.


        Posted by jantango | 04.15.2009, 2:57 PM


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The sound files on this site are included for illustrative purposes only. Those wishing to obtain high quality versions for their personal collections should purchase commercially available copies. If you can't get to a record store in Buenos Aires, a great many tangos are available, song by song, in meticulously digitized versions from http://www.tangotunes.com/ and others can be found on the iTunes music store or Amazon (transfer quality varies widely). Though he no longer has inventory available, Michael Lavocah's superb http://milonga.co.uk/ can help you determine which CDs might be best to buy used.
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