The Spanish Bullfight

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The Spanish Bullfight

A Dramatic Ritual  It's hard to say in a few words what bullfighting means to a Spaniard. Ernest Hemingway tried, in Death in the Afternoon. But you have to see a whole corrida yourself to grasp its significance. The first and most important point (and the hardest for Americans to understand): everything revolves around the death of the bull. Many well-meaning critics ask if the death is necessary. In Portugal and South America, bullfights take place as in Spain, except that at the last moment the bull is spared. Spaniards regard this as cheating.

In Spain, the aficionados who come expect to participate in a drama which has a structure as complicated as a Baroque opera. There is a beginning, middle, and end. The end is the slaying of the bull (or bullfighter). Without it, the drama is left hanging, like a scale without the last note. The custom will seem less cruel if you realize that the bullfight is not "sport" or "entertainment" but a ritual drama. It is supposed to symbolize the basic conflict of forces in life: either you kill the bull or the bull kills you. Remember that modern Spain was born of conflict: Christian vs. Moor. The whole psychology of the Spanish has been molded by the Reconquest, and the bullfight is its continuing symbol. It is safe to say that only the Christian concept of sacrifice can explain the significance of the death of the bull. For this reason, the bulls are greatly revered. They all have proper names.

Famous Bulls  Many Spaniards can tell you about the great bull Bailador, who fought on August 29, 1883. It took 21 deep thrusts of the rapier to kill him. In the meantime, Bailador had killed 13 horses. Another bull, Caramelo, defeated a lion and a tiger in the Madrid ring, and when he fought on August 3, 1877, his courage and strength so impressed the crowd that a roar went up to spare him. (In spite of what we said above, this does happen in rare cases.)

Raising the Bulls  According to Spanish law, the bull must be five years of age. A popular saying is: "A bull of five and a torero of twenty-five." Bulls are selected for their physical condition, their fierceness, and their sheer orneriness. Spaniards insist that the fight be on equal terms. A suitable bull is called toro de lidia: a toro (bull) fit for the lidia (final contest of strength). Through special breeding techniques, the Spanish have managed to raise a class of bulls that can't be found anywhere outside Spain. They're raised with great care, mainly in the pastures of Estremadura and Andalusia. Until the moment they enter the ring, they're treated like royalty. So they're spoiled as well as fierce — beholden to no one. Sheer nastiness is the quality most sought after in bulls. They are born and bred to be fighters. A good bull is capable of throwing a matador 15 feet into the air, easily lift a horse, and overturn a good-size truck with one butt of its head. Occasionally there is held aluchas de fieras (wild animal fight): a bull is pitted against a lion, an elephant, a tiger, a panther, or a bear. In virtually all cases, the bull wins easily. After all, a bull can weight a thousand pounds.

Raising the Matadors  These facts are only too well known by the bullfighters (matadors) themselves. A matador is considered a fool who isn't panic-stricken before a fight. The matador isn't able to eat, drink, or stand still. He usually prays in a tiny chapel just outside the ring. He nervously paces the floor, and tests the wind. (The matador dreads a wind; it makes his capes flutter and causes erratic behavior in the bull.) It is felt that a matador who lacks fear tends to perform routinely, mechanically. The dramatic effect is lost. For this reason, only the fiercest bulls are used, to ensure that the matador has plenty to fear! There is no "college" for matadors.

Their role is too revered to be reduced to a "technique" that can be studied. Matadors learn from each other, and through constant practice. Spanish children play at bullfighting from the age they can walk. Those who really advance in the skill go on to seek out experienced toreros (bullfighters who have actually killed a bull), and sit at their feet to learn. Age or class origins don't mean anything here. Skill is what matters. A matador may be 16 or 45 years old. He may be a peasant from Galicia or a nobleman from Castile. His real worth and social position is determined only in the ring. Bullfighting in Spain may be viewed as a kind of social leveller.

Three Acts and an Overture  Bullfighting is highly ritualized, as we mentioned. It consists of an overture — the procession into the ring — and three distinct acts. The word corrida refers to the bullfight as a whole: it means "running," the running of the bull.

The Overture  When the bullfight opens, the band will start playing, and all participants in the fight, whatever their role, will parade around the ring, to much applause (especially if a "name" matador is to fight). You'll want to know how to identify the matadors at this stage, so you can keep an eye on them. The usual bullfight calls for the killing of six bulls by three matadors (thus: two bulls for each matador). Now, look for the three men just behind the mounted escort — the ones walking in front of all the others. The oldest matador will walk on the right (facing the front of the procession) and will kill the first and fourth bulls: the next-oldest will walk on the left, and will kill the second and fifth; the youngest will walk in the center, and will kill the third and sixth. The two horsemen who lead the parade are known as "constables," a tradition going back to Philip IV. They receive from the president of the ring the keys of the corral where the bulls are waiting, and they give these keys to the corral keeper who lets out the first bull.

The First Act  The ring is cleared, and into it prances the bull. This first act is called the Act of the Picadores. The picadores are men mounted on horseback with long lances, who drive these lances into the neck of the bull. There are two scenes to this first act.

Scene One: This is the doblando, in which the bull is teased and lured this way and that, not by the picadores (who haven't appeared yet), but by the matador's assistants. These assistants wave large capes in front of the bull. The purpose is to size it up and all this iskeenly watched by the matador from a distance.

What is the matador looking for? For such things as: a tendency to return to a specific spot in the arena (the bull's "home base"), which he is likely to guard fiercely and is therefore more dangerous to fight on. The matador looks to see whether the bull is over-aggressive and full of fight, with a one-track mind. Paradoxically, this type of bull isn't so dangerous, because his one-track mind makes him predictable. It's the cagey, not-so-straightforward bull that worries the matador. The matador looks to see how good the bull's vision is (many are near-sighted), how he charges, or whether he tends to veer toward the left or the right in a charge.

At this point, the matador advances to do a little cape-teasing of his own, to put the final touches on his assessment of the bull. This is your first chance to witness the matador's art. The action consists of a series of passes, the bull being lured by the large cape to pass by the matador. With each pass, the matador lures the bull closer to him, making the procedure more dangerous, and therefore exhibiting his skill. Shouts from the audience reveal how successful the matador is in doing this. The thing to notice is whether the matador's feet remain together (they should be), or whether the matador has to bend over a little (he shouldn't). If he kneels, he's really taking a risk (since that limits his mobility) — and cheers will erupt.

So, in short: look at the matador's feet, his waist (he should be fully upright, not bending over), and his closeness to the bull (the closer, the more skillful).

By the way, it isn't always a foregone conclusion that the matador will "win." It has been estimated that the matador has a 10-to-one chance of success, but there's always that one chance for disaster.

Scene Two: The guites, or second scene, begins with the entrance of the picadores on horseback. The object of this scene is to keep jabbing those lances into the hump of muscle on the top of the bull's neck. It's a thick muscle which controls the bull's tossing head. In order for the matador to drive his rapier into the bull's heart, the bull must have his front legs together and his head lowered. By weakening the muscle controlling the head, the picadores are wearing down the bull so that his head will eventually drop down. But that's two more acts away. This jabbing doesn't actually hurt the bull that much (it looks more painful than it is); the lance does not make a deep wound because there is a crosspiece which prevents it from going in too deep.

Twenty-five years ago, this was the goriest part of the fight. The horses didn't wear padding, and the bulls would often gouge out their entrails, which would drag on the sand. So padding was draped over the horse. It weights 60 pounds, and is enough to protect the horse from most bulls. But the horse is still vulnerable, and the job of the picador requires skill. Generally, the picadores are despised by the crowd, who feel that this weakens the bull (which it does), spoiling the sport. it does indeed weaken the bull to toss a horse a few feet into the air two or three times (which is average for a bullfight) — but thankfully, theheavy padding prevents the toss from becoming a gouge.

After this jabbing, the cape-teasing resumes, sometimes involving not only the matador assigned to the bull, but the others as well. Each one takes turns in drawing the bull away from the picadores with his cape. By this time, bull and matador know each other pretty well, and some skillful cape work can be seen. Since three matadors are alternately at work here, there's a little competition among them going on as well: each one tries to "show himself off" to best advantage, to impress the crowd and therefore the president of the ring (who bestows honors after the fight).

To conclude the Act of the Picadores: it is the least pleasant part of the bullfight, with all that jabbing, the horse-tossing, and the blood oozing down the bull's neck. But there isn't a matador alive who would fight a bull that hadn't been weakened by the lances. You might think of the picadores as the handicap-factor given to the matador, to make the fight more equal.

The Second Act  This is the Act of the Banderillas. Its three scenes are the three sets of banderillas stuck into the bull's neck. The banderillas are decorated darts with colorful streamers attached. the object here is to perk the bull up a bit, after his wearying experience with the picadores. These darts hardly hurt the bull — they irritate him, like a pin stuck in your finger. The banderilleros will run toward the bull, stick the darts in, then run away. This is the least dangerous part of the fight, since the banderillero can turn on one foot while the bull cannot. Once in a while, the matador himself will do the dart-sticking, showing that he is especially expert at this task.

The Third Act  A flourish of trumpets announces the Act of Death (the faena), and this act has two scenes. Here the matador puts on his best show. If, when he enters the ring, he holds his hat above his head and turns slowly around, it means he's dedicating the bull to the whole audience — and that's done only when the matador thinks he can give a better-than-average performance, with spectacular flourishes.

Scene One: Instead of a large cape, the matador now uses a small one (a muleta) which is held on a short stick. Since it's smaller, it doesn't distract the bull from the matador's body as effectively, and this makes the cape-play the most dangerous part of the fight. This is the time to watch the matador's actions closely. The passes made by the bull are of many kinds, hinging on the skill of the matador. This is when the Oles rise up from the crowd — or when cushions are thrown angrily into the ring if the crowd believes the matador to be bumbling.

Scene Two: This is known as the Moment of Truth, the kill — the climax of the corrida. First, the matador must square the bull — maneuver him into a head-on position with his two front feet together. Sometimes the matador lunges with his rapier, but the bull shifts his feet, so that the rapier strikes bone and flies high into the air. The matador might have to "square" the bull several times. At the right moment, the matador drives the rapier in over the bull's horns with one hand, while the other hand holds the cape to one side to divert the horns. If the cape fails to do that, instead of sword into the bull, it will be horn into man. The matador may either wait for the bull to charge before making his thrust, or else attack the bull first. The arena is silent for this final moment — then, if it's successful, cheers thunder from the stands.

Prizes  It's up to the president of the ring (usually the mayor) to make the awards. He is usually swayed by the reaction of the crowd. If the matador did well, he is given one of the bull's ears. Exceptionally well: both ears. Superlatively well: two ears and the tail. There have been occasions when a hoof or two were added as well. The all-time record is probably held by Carlos Arruza, who in Malaga was awarded the whole animal!

The dead bull is then dragged out by a team of horses, and the crowd often cheers it. Hemingway once described the exhilaration felt by a successful matador when he said that he'd rather be awarded the ear of a bull in the Madrid plaza than win the Nobel Prize.

Addenda  A few additional facts about Spanish bullfighting.

Season: The bullfight season in Spain runs from Easter (usually the beginning of April) through October).

Places: The Plaza Monumental in Madrid is where the most famous matadors are to be seen the most often, and the best fights are staged here during the San Isidro fair in May. The second most famous place is Seville, and the best time is during the fair week that begins in late April.

Running the bulls: This famous spectacle occurs in Pamplona before the bullfights on July 7. Bulls run through the streets — parting crowds like Moses at the Red Sea.

Superstars, as of 1984: The flamboyant "El Cordobes" (Manuel Benitez) is the biggest star of recent history, though more conservative critics consider his showmanship demeaning to the ritual (like Elton John becoming Archbishop of Canterbury). Other big names: Antonio Ordonez, Paco Camino, Curro Giron, Diego Puerta, and "El Viti" (Santiago Martin).

Current superstars, as of 1999: El Juli (16 years old , a child progidy.) Francisco Rivera Ordoñez (fearless - his father Paquirri was equally famous and died in a bullfight. Cesar Rincón (a Colombian.) Enrique Ponce (a true artist), and Espartaco (in the classical style.)

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