Bella Vida says goodbye to the Senior Sultan of Swing


Longtime Santa Clarita resident, artist and Bella Vida ballroom dancer Rudy Pavini died Saturday at the age of 87.  

Born Sept. 21, 1934, to Amadeo and Maria Pavini, Brazilian immigrants originally hailing from Italy, Pavini would go on over the next eight and a half decades to live in a way that led people who knew him best to describe the Navy veteran as kind, caring and compassionate.  

“Anyone that walked up to Rudy, he just had a great smile for, greeted you with that warmth, wanted you to feel welcome; ‘Come sit at my table,’” said Kevin MacDonald, the SCV Senior Center executive director. “That was the Rudy that we know.”   

However, to Tommie Ward, his fiancée and longtime dance partner at the SCV Senior Center, he was the person who transformed one of the darkest periods in her life to one of the best. And for that, she strongly associates him with one word in particular.  

“It was the best day of my life when I met Rudy,” said Ward, 90. “He was a good man with a good heart. He was my king.”   

Rudy Pavini, left, and Tommie Ward could be seen dancing regularly for years at the SCV Senior Center. Here seen dancing to the music as The Orchard Bluegrass Band performs holiday favorites at “A Country Christmas” luncheon the Santa Clarita Senior Center in Newhall on Tuesday., December 11, 2018, Dan Watson/The Signal

Before becoming a local institution on the Senior Center’s dance floor, Pavini graduated high school in 1952 and had hopes of pursuing a career in art. But, Uncle Sam had other plans. 

After avoiding the draft by enlisting in the Naval Reserves from 1952 to 1955, Pavini was called up to active duty to serve on the USS Coral Sea. While on the aircraft carrier, he would say decades later, he was able to visit the countries of his artistic heroes, tour the museums that housed their work, from the South of France, to Greece to Italy and, a lifetime dream of his, the Sistine Chapel. 

“‘How did he do that?’” he remembered asking himself after seeing the temple tattooed by his painter, Michelangelo, for the first time. “‘I want to paint like that.’”   

In 1956, during the Hungarian Revolution against the Soviet Union, the USS Coral Sea, with Pavini on board, played a crucial role in shuttling Hungarian refugees to safer shores, away from the war.  

Later on in 1956, when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nassar rode a wave of nationalism to cement his power at the head of the country, the USS Coral Sea patrolled off of the coast of the Suez Canal and helped evacuate Americans fleeing Egyptian borders.  

In 1958, Pavini was honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy after completing six years in the service.  

By the 1970s, he, his wife Kathy — a musician who had a passion for teaching — and their four children moved to Santa Clarita, and Pavini revisited his childhood dream of pursuing a career in art by beginning to teach students.   

Until Kathy’s death in 2005, Pavini and his wife would be teaching music, art and/or drama, take students on field trips to the beach, theater, Placerita Nature Center and Vasquez Rocks. 

In his retirement Rudy said he wanted to continue doing the things he loved, including drawing, teaching, going to the theater and even painting an intricate mural at the Placerita Nature Center.  

“I’m a kid myself,” he joked in 2019, when asked how he could keep up with so many interests.  

He also continued to pursue another one of his major passions: dancing. And that’s when he met Tommie.    

In December 2019, The Signal sat down with Pavini to interview him for a veteran profile. Despite regaling the reporter with his appreciation of nature, tales from his world travels and the pride he took in decades of teaching art, Pavini made sure, during the conversation, to mention the day he met Ward.  

FILE PHOTO U.S. Navy veteran Rudy Pavini. 12019 Dan Watson/The Signal

“She was depressed at the time and she was on a cane … but she said, ‘I want to learn how to dance,’” he said. “She said, ‘Give me a try,’ and I did. And we got better and better and better and better and better.” 

For the next decade, the two would be known as the inseparable Tommie and Rudy. She had never traveled before leaving Georgia; Rudy showed her the Grand Canyon. She did not dance before coming to the Senior Center when it was located in Newhall; Rudy showed her how to cut some rugs and years off the clock.  

The two would dress the same at dance, social and even church events. He was a devout Catholic, she a Pentacostal; but the two, every Sunday, would sit beside one another at each other’s respective services “praising God together,” Ward said. 

“They’d be dancing up a storm,” said MacDonald, in reference to Ward and Pavini’s commitment to beat bopping. “To see their love was just wonderful for all of us to just witness over the years.”  

“He was my everything; he was my King,” said Ward, adding that the two were engaged 15 years. “He was a gift from God to me, he gave me all the joy and happiness I had never experienced. I loved him. Rest well, my King. Rest well!”   

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