Staying with Custodia Romero in Madrid in her Casa Particular
My first trip to Spain in 1953 was significant for several reasons apart from the special studies I began there.
My friend, Carmen Estrabeau, a Spanish actress and singer, had two sisters who lived in Madrid and it was this contact which opened the door to my first introduction to Spain.
After the voyage on ship of ten days, I landed in Paris and found through a friend on board a modest hotel. Another contact I had from the states, the wife of a musician friend was living in Paris with her young daughter. With their help, I soon became familiar with the city enough to navigate the various sections and explore on my own.
I visited a famous Spanish dancer who I saw once in concert in Los Angeles, and found her eager to meet me and bask in my admiration. She was Manuela del Rio and a very good castanet player and fine exponent of Spanish dance forms. Her style dated back to the early ‘30’s era and seemed rooted to the type of presentation of La Argentina, but not as dynamic. Her guitarist was her husband who played for a demonstration of dance by Manuela and she showed parts of the Zapateado she had studied with El Estampio in Madrid.
She claimed that Juan Sanchez, “ El Estampio” was now old and she implied that he was not capable of teaching. I knew she was hinting that I take classes with her, but I resisted this as I had other plans. I returned on another day to have a rehearsal with her guitarist and go over some material I knew of Alegrias and some Soleares. I had invited an acquaintance from the pension where I was staying recommended by my friend’s wife. While I wandered around I visited another Spanish teacher, a man who told me that contrary to Manuela’s opinion, Estampio was perfectly able to explain the steps of the Zapateado. This turned out to be very true!
I also went to a ballet studio to see and meet the famous Russian ballerina Olga Preobrajenska. She was giving a private lesson to a young dancer and it was most charming to watch her make a correction and also sprinkle some water on the wooden floor to make it less slippery. Later she spoke a bit of English with me saying she had danced in the United States and she embraced me warmly at the end. I spent three delightful weeks in Paris. I believe I derived much from it.
At last I set out for Madrid. When I arrived in Madrid, I went to a hotel, newly built and comfortable enough, but knew that I had to make the one phone call to the only contact I had at the time… Carmen’s sister. I was afraid. My Spanish was uncertain, accented and the lady, who answered, told the sister that I was a foreign young lady. This seemed strange to me at the time, as I almost considered myself a Spanish person. I was invited to come over and meet her and another friend.
I did the best I could to explain in Spanish my desire to study and Adelaida, the sister spoke of Custodia Romero, an Andalusian dancer who had an apartment, a piso, and perhaps I could stay with her. While there I saw she had an upright piano and I sat down and played Sacramonte and el Amor Brujo and Adelaida declared I must be a talented dancer if I could play like that.
At last, I went to see Custodia. She lived on the Gran Via centrally located in the heart of Madrid. It was spring and already warm. When I went to her apartment, she remarked I looked Spanish and said I could rent the spare room for about 50 pesetas a day. That came to about 500 pesetas for the month. It was a plain bedroom and only one bathroom in the apartment. I liked the idea of staying with a Spanish Dancer. Custodia was a beautiful woman of Andalusian background from Jerez.de la Frontera. Her appearance gave an impression of one of those costumed dolls sold at the time in shops all over Spain for the tourists. She seemed out of another world to me as she actually was. Full figured, she presented a vision of control and authority. Her flawless complexion was olive tinged and with an aquiline nose and a beautifully shaped mouth and perfect teeth, she appeared the epitome of the Andalusian bailaora one reads about in Waldo Frank’s Virgin Spain. He described the Andalusian dancer as a goddess figure, indeed, a matriarchal type.
Often, in the late morning she would enter the apartment singing Fandangos. She seemed happy and content. She had been known as the Bronze Venus (La Venus de Bronce) and she still evoked that image.
She employed one maid, a housekeeper really who was a cook and general live-in servant. This girl, only 20 at the time, became friendly with me and told me a number of facts about Custodia. Her fame as a dancer was limited, but her looks may have lulled her into complacency about her art, perhaps diverting her attention to her appearance instead of advancing her mastery of the dance. However, she had a “novio” who bought her the home she lived in and she was comfortable with that. She did have another tenant in the house, a young Puerto Rican medical student who had a number of young friends who became admirers of mine.
During the weeks, I acclimatized myself to life in Spain, and explored the city. At one point, I accompanied Custodia to her dance studio nearby and danced some of my Solea for her without music. She knew immediately that I already was a dancer. Although I did not ask her directly, she recommended Regla Ortega as a teacher. But before that, I had made contact with the legendary El Estampio through a long time dancer friend Dolores Fernandez.
During my brief stay in Paris, I sought out Dolores whom I had known from my early studies with José Fernandez. She was a classmate of mine in that period. Her name at the time was Doris. The events over the years that followed brought us together as fellow artists and I enjoyed her company because of the common interest we shared of Spanish Dance.
I was given a contact address by a theater agent in Paris and soon after arriving in Madrid I began a correspondence by letter with Dolores. She had married José Fernandez, and became his dance partner. Her other marriage to a Latin American pianist and band leader was dissolved. She was known before as Doris Galian, and now she had another identity. Her letters were full of wonderful advice for study. I pursued all of the information she offered, and found myself going to three classes daily.
In addition to my studies, I tried to see as many performances in the theater as possible. Often I would attend a Tarde which as the custom is in Spain, a late afternoon show beginning around 7 P.m. I also would go to the Noche if I could not get a seat for the Tarde. This meant a program beginning around 10 in the evening and ending well into the night. The Spanish hours have always been late. The traditional siesta was still enforced during the hours from 4 to 7 P.M. The city would then become alive with people walking throughout the streets in the Paseo. Crowds would congregate on the Gran via strolling leisurely and gazing at one another; others sittings at tables outdoors and enjoying a coffee or drink. I found the hours difficult in a way but tried to adjust to this new environment. I actually enjoyed the idea of coming and going by myself. It seemed safe enough. If I was out very late at night I would have to call on the sereno, the night watchman. With three hand claps he would come running over and for a few coins (at that time) he would open the gates to the pension where I was staying. All was secured and evidently he was entrusted with the keys to the buildings.
As I moved about mostly alone, exploring the city, occasionally “piropos” were made to me by men passing on the street. At first it startled me but I became accustomed to these compliments offered when I was told that no one would bother me. It just was the custom at the time. Some of these were ” Que hermosa estas” ! or Que ojos tiene”! How beautiful you are! What eyes you have!
In the early morning I would hear the donkeys braying as they went their way with the trash collector. Not a beautiful sound, but part of the atmosphere.