On May 22, 2003 at 4 PM local time in Buenos Aires, our dearest Nestor Ray passed away, fifteen days after he had returned to his beloved Buenos Aires. His sister Josefa Luisa Raiano indicated that he died peacefully following a cardiac arrest.
Dealing with matters of life and death is a difficult task when different cultures are involved. We made the choice to follow the dictates of our conscience and express our feelings with the honesty and integrity that the loving memory of a friend like Nestor Ray deserves.
The absurdity of funerals and postmortem homages is that they serve those who stay alive but do very little for the ones who died. A poet wrote that we need to tell about our love for others “en vivo,” while they are still alive to hear us.
A week earlier we had been dancing in Rome. There, a dancer from Buenos Aires who has known Nestor Ray for many years, spoke of her concern for Nestor’s health. A few days later while picking up e-mails at Rome’s Central Railroad Station, a message from a teacher, organizer and Nestor’s host in Los Angeles read, “Nestor is in very grave condition” and had “very little time left.” He had been taken to Cedars Sinai Hospital Saturday, May 3 because “he could not walk.” A second message indicated that Nestor had been discharged from the hospital Sunday evening and the doctor said it was okay for him to travel to Buenos Aires.
The phone call with the sad news of his death caught us unprepared. Suddenly nothing mattered more except shedding tears, surrendering to grief and allowing the mourning to begin.
Nestor Ray traveled around the world under the sponsorship of dozens upon dozens of promoters, who saw their communities and their own personal careers benefit with prestige because of his presence, talent and generosity. When we were told that his family couldn’t afford a simple funeral, we wired the required amount of money overnight to take care of the problem. We then suggested that anyone wishing to help could contribute to a fund set up on the Internet. Only four among the dozens of the aforementioned promoters joined a handful of individuals who had known Nestor, united by their desire to show their respect by insuring that he had a decent and dignified funeral.
He was born Salvador Pedro Raiano on April 19, 1945 in Villa Ballester, Buenos Aires, the son of an Italian horse caretaker and bricklayer, also named Salvador, who died young almost at the same age Nestor died. His mother, still alive at the time of his passing is nearly 90 years old. She was married twice and had a dozen kids. He acquired his nickname “Nestor” from a prison gang where he spent a great deal of time taking the blame for his younger brother’s robberies. Bad behavior and rebellious attitude earned him a trip to the notorious Zapala correctional facility in the southernmost tip of Argentina. Finally, after he was sent to a Juvenile Rehab center, he learned to be a tailor and an upholsterer, professions he made good use of during his adult life. He became a teenager at the dawn of a period of military rule that would change the way people lived and died in Argentina. Rock and roll was sweeping the airwaves and tango was only danced in traditional settings in neighborhoods with a long standing reputation for the caliber of their dancers.
By his own account, at age nine he learned his first dance of embrace to the sound of “chamames” and “rancheras,” popular dances from the north eastern provinces of Argentina. Downtown, in the clubs of Buenos Aires, Conga, Mambo, Cha-cha-cha and Boogie-woogie were popular dances inspired by the likes of Fred Astaire and Carmen Miranda on the silver screen.
In 1956 Bill Haley and his Comets rocked the city around the clock and the fever that ensued captured the imagination of youngsters nationwide. Nestor was one of those gifted “rockeros” who became a sensation winning dance competitions by the time he turned seventeen.
In 1960, he started working as a jockey, but his passion for dancing kept him away from training sessions and denied him the opportunity to participate in any races.
His tango dancing began as with most young kids, hanging around the “viejos,” watching and practicing in front of a mirror, making mistakes and alternating the roles of men and women with the other kids.
During his visit to New Orleans in 2001, we asked Nestor how he began to dance tango. Nestor answered, “I was very young when I began hanging around my neighborhood club. One day, one of the “viejos,” took a liking of me and decided to teach me. He first asked me to go to the other side of the huge dance floor and watch the people who were dancing there. After a while I came back and told the old man, “those people there don’t know how to dance!”
“Right,” he said, “that was your first lesson. That’s how you are NOT supposed to dance!”
The elder milongueros advised him to develop a personal style, to dance with feeling and to look at tango as a hobby and not as a business.
Somebody noted in the aftermath of his death that Nestor had spent more time dancing for joy than for money. And he may have just remained one of those anonymous milongueros, whose names are only known to a close group of friends who shared the same joy for the dance.
He might have spent his days toiling in a body shop, fixing dents and reupholstering car seats. He could have continued winning tango tournaments joining Fino, Pupi, Todaro, Kalisay, Balmaceda and others giving exhibitions all over the blue collar clubs of Buenos Aires. If it hadn’t been for actor Robert Duvall.
During his last stay at our former residence in California in 1999, Nestor talked at length about his relationship with Robert Duvall. There was a time when the actor, fascinated by a dancer he’s watched spinning with grace and rhythm in the movie “Tango mio,” went to Buenos Aires looking for him.
At the time, the members of the original cast of the show “Tango Argentino” were basking in the glory of the international success of the show, and almost everyone from Mayoral, Virulazo to Copes took turns teaching tango to the famous movie star while at the same time claiming not to know, or having no idea who this guy was that Duvall was looking for.
According to Nestor, he had been dancing many times at the same places where Duvall was rubbing elbows with the TA cast. One day, as Nestor was asked to do an exhibition, Duvall introduced himself and said that he liked the way Nestor did the “giros,” and that it reminded him of a guy he’d seen in a movie but couldn’t find.
Nestor realized that in the movie he still had a head full of hair, and in vintage Nestor Ray replied, “Sir, I am him, nobody can do these “giros” like I do.”
Cut to a farm in Virginia. Nestor was now being touted as Duvall’s personal tango coach. Dissolve to a sidewalk cafe around the block from a Washington, DC. theater where “Forever Tango” was playing. We were managing Carlos Gavito’s workshops in all the cities where the show played. The year, 1996 and joining us at the table were the aging actor, Nestor Ray and Marcela Duran (she never realized that she could have been the star of Assassination Tango judging by the way she blew off the advances of a smitten Duvall).
Later that July, Nestor was announced as a last minute addition to the Stanford Tango Week faculty. With no command of English, fighting health problems and paired with an egocentric young Argentine dancer residing in the Bay Area, Nestor’s debut in California was a flop of major consequences. Remarkably he was able to recover, turning a negative experience into an educational one. As he learned from his mistakes he began a new phase in his life, first becoming a master-in-residence in the San Francisco Bay Area, and later being a good will ambassador in tango cities all over the world.
He often told about the experience he shared with Juan Bruno while rooming on campus during Stanford 1996. A raccoon had made its way from the nearby hills and stood in the middle of the room when they walked in. Such was their scare and their terror that for long minutes they were both convinced that they both were in the presence of an extraterrestrial creature.
Everywhere he has been, there are many people who can share stories, anecdotes and tales from the rich and colorful mind of Nestor Ray, people who somehow have chosen not to make their video memories of Nestor available for a commemorative tribute reel. A memorial web page was set up on Planet Tango’s website www.planet-tango.com/nestor.htm).
Nestor liked the concept of Assassination Tango and he claimed to have contributed to the original script. He was looking forward to the filming of the movie. He took credit for introducing Duvall to Luciana Pedraza, who worked as a tourist office in Buenos Aires, adding that when she first came to the US he introduced her as his cousin because of Duvall’s contested divorce. He felt sad about the circumstances that eventually edged him out of Duvall’s inner circle, but he wouldn’t elaborate beyond that.
With him, the tango lost one of its greatest living testimonies. He passed away at a too young age, the way bohemians do, lonely and suffering in excess. He was truly a great one. A true bailarin. It was impossible to avoid watching him. The day will come when somebody dancing a great tango may be asked who his teacher was, and he might respond, “my teacher was Nestor Ray.”
Click HERE to watch on You Tube
We will always remember the contagious and joyful nature of his personality and dancing style. We hope that his legacy will be one of hard work, honesty and generosity to inspire future generations.
First published on El Firulete’s June 2003 issue. Copyright (c) 2003-2011 Planet Tango. All rights Reserved