Photo by Alan Toth

When most people wander by the Fairmont Hotel, they see the recently unveiled statue of legendary singer Tony Bennett, but when the Mission District salsa teacher Rodolfo Guzman walks by he sees a bit of himself.

And it’s true. Five days a week for over a month, Guzman posed for the sculptor of the Tony Bennett statue, Bruce Wolfe.

“I tried to channel my inner Tony.” said Guzman.

At 5 feet 9 plus, and 180 pounds, the salsa dancer and instructor has a compact athletic frame that is very Bennett-like. Moreover, he’s trained to hold poses and control his body — a skill that made him a perfect candidate to be the body model for Wolfe’s Tony Bennett statue.

Wolfe said he prefers working with dancers rather than professional models, because even though statues don’t move, Wolfe wants statues that imply movement. But even for someone who understood that notion, the job wasn’t easy.  “He had a hard time holding the same pose for so long,” said Wolfe.

Though Guzman is a skilled performer, the Mexican native wasn’t born to dance. In fact, he moved to the United States to study photography in Chicago. Later, Guzman moved to San Francisco, where he got into real estate, but the hyper-competitive real estate business in the city wore him down.

“It got to the point where I was hating life, trying to make money,” said Guzman. “I had to do something fun for myself.”

Then in 1999, Guzman went to see a performance of Luis Bravo’s Forever Tango. He knew immediately that dance was the answer. He moved from tango to salsa, and along the way he and his instructor, Ava Apple, became dance partners. By 2002 they were teaching salsa classes together, and in 2010 they opened the Symbolic Dance studio on Van Ness Avenue near 18th Street.

To prepare for his role as a body model, Guzman watched Bennett’s performances, hoping to understand the singer’s physical mannerisms and style. He noticed that Bennett didn’t actually move around much during performances, which made the idea of capturing an iconic pose unlikely. Instead, Wolfe and Bennett decided on a pose, and Guzman tried to keep the singer in his thoughts.

That’s when channeling Bennett came in.

Wolfe started the statue by meticulously measuring Guzman’s body and then creating an internal armature that matched the measurements. Wolfe then gradually molded the statue with clay, with Guzman as a reference.

Guzman arrived every day at about 10 a.m. and struck a pose — arms spread in a welcoming gesture, left leg forward, and face turned up to the imaginary crowd. At first, he posed in underwear, to allow Wolfe to capture the form of his body. Later on, he donned a suit, so Wolfe could capture the material.

“For me it was not terribly exciting, just standing there,” said Guzman, “but it is interesting to see the process.”

Despite the demanding physicality of the work, Guzman found it a rewarding experience.

His daily meditation on Tony Bennett left him with a new appreciation for the singer’s humanitarian work — he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. And he was in awe of Bennett’s tenacity, continuing to perform at 90 years old.

Guzman had the opportunity to meet Bennett when the singer visited Wolfe’s studio to allow the sculptor to capture his likeness.

“Watching a master at his craft trying to portray another master was tremendous,” said Guzman.

As for Bennett, he loves the statue.

“That’s the most beautiful statue I have ever seen,” said Bennett at the unveiling ceremony on August 19th. “It will live in my heart forever. Thank you for being so wonderful to me. I’ll never forget this day.”

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  1. Thank you Alan for the cool interview of my partner Rodolfo!
    Just a note – our studio “Symbolic Dance & Fitness” opened in 2010 and is located at 672 South Van Ness at 18th street.

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