Matador for a Day

Matador for a Day

In San Diego and at a working ranch in Mexico, Dan Halpern steps into the ring for lessons in the dangerous art of bullfighting

It is unlikely that the animal about to enter the ring will hurt me. That's what I've been led to believe, anyway. But here in the Plaza de Tientas, the big circle where the bull rancher tests out his young herd, I am very aware nonetheless that I am a small animal, and relatively speaking a weak one, without much in the way of offensive or defensive aspects to my anatomy. And just now it suddenly seems that my opponent is evolutionarily better suited to what we're up to. That is to say, learning to be a bullfighter may have sounded better before it involved any bulls.

Or actually, cows. The fact is, I'm going to be facing a charging cow. This is not a 1,100-pound animal with horns that would go through muscle and bone like a needle through silk. She's a vaca, about a year old, which, translated into cow years, makes her about a kindergartner, a kindergarten cow with very small horns. Here, on a dusty ranch in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, a one-year-old cow is about to try to kill me.

The small cow is not a particular concession to the fact that I've had just two days of training at a bullfighting school in San Diego—the California Academy of Tauromaquia—or to whatever amount of machismo I have been perceived, surely accurately, to lack. Fighting bulls are not shown the red cape until they enter the great ring for their single chance to face the matador. (Bulls quickly learn that the cape is not, in fact, a part of human anatomy, and fight only once. A bull that has fought before will, it is said, never fail to find a way to kill a man.)

Instead, the ganadero—the bull rancher—tests his young cows in the ringto judge which ones he should use for breeding with his very best bulls, who will father the brave toros destined to perform before huge audiences in Mexico City and throughout the country.

The Tauromaquia academy is the first American school for amateur toreros, offering lessons year-round in California and intensive courses at ranches in Mexico and Spain. For my training, I've traveled first to San Diego and now to the ganadería Espíritu Santo, on the high plainsbordering the Mexican states of Guanajuato and San Luis Potosí. In a week's time, the idea is to learn enough to get in the ring with an animal and to get out of the way.

Or rather, not to get out of the way, but to persuade the animal to go where I want it to go. Strictly speaking, I'm not learning to be a matador—I'm not learning to kill an animal. For a matador is, literally translated, a killer. But not a butcher: He is responsible for providing an elegant death for a brave animal and, perhaps as important, a terrible, beautiful dance with the toro, which leads to that climax. Much of the drama of the corrida de toros—that is, the bullfight—lies, obviously, in the fact that the matador is dancing not only with the bull but also with death, and that this dance can lead not only to the bull's death but to his own.

The course is given by Coleman Cooney, a native San Diegan who found himself in Madrid in his thirties and fell in love with the art of toreo, and Santiago González, who grew up in Mexico, now lives in San Diego, and whose manipulation of the cape is so adroit and lithe that the fabric looks like part of his arm.

In San Diego, we begin by learning how to face the animal and practicing passes that have been around for almost 200 years. We are working with the muleta, the famous red flannel cloth, which is supported by a wooden dowel and a sword whose point holds up the edge of the cloth.

For the first pass, you face the animal in profile, covering your hip with the cape so the animal thinks it is part of you; with a forehand grip, you point the muleta at a right angle to your torso with the far edge just a bit forward; the bull, whose eyes are widely spaced, wants to follow that point. As he approaches, you sweep the cape backward just in front of his head, keeping your arm absolutely straight and without bending your knees or your back.

The technique is essential—without it, the animal will take more of an interest in you than in the muleta. But this is not, perhaps, the real heart of being a matador.

Coleman says: "No slumping. Head up, back straight. Throw out your chest, keep your hand on your hip. I'm sorry to put it so crudely, but listen: Walk with your balls. Point them straight at the animal. Good. Go." Santiago says: "To be a great torero you must be brave, you must have great style and technique, but you must also have the ability to project your own essential being—to express your emotion in the ring. You are telling the crowd who you are."

After a few days of practice, we walk over the border to Tijuana for a flight to León, where we meet more students—who have all done the course before—and drive to the ganadería, the ranch. There we are greeted by the ganadero, Pablo Labastida Aguirre, his wife, Paulina, and their two small sons. The ranch is on some 1,200 acres of dry, high-plains land with scrabbly hills in the distance, agave plants and enormous spherical cacti littering the landscape.

It's a dreamy, relaxed place, quiet and windless. Inside the ranch's main compound, everything is dedicated to the bull; on the walls are posters from famous fights with Pablo's animals, huge maps of legendary bloodlines, and grainy black-and-white photos of matadors. Students stay in large, comfortable rooms with windows overlooking the ring, but we don't spend much time in them. Rather, we're out on horse rides through the surrounding area, paying visits to neighboring ranches, or, above all, lazing around the green central courtyard, protected by the high stone walls that surround Pablo and Paulina's lovely orange and blue Mexican ranch-style house, where we eat and talk late into the night.

I drink a lot of tequila.

It's not just that I'm anxious about the animal bred to kill me. I'm worrying as well about the fact that this is not a vanity project. The ganadero is working. He is testing the animals, and we are responsible for showing him what he needs to know: Is she brave?Is she smart?Will she charge from a distance?Pablo's great-grandfather, Manuel Ygueravide Barrenchea, founded Espíritu Santo in 1888, and the family has been breeding toros bravos ever since, for four generations. They have produced the bravest, the strongest, the most beautiful fighting animals imaginable. And one of them is coming to get me.

When the first vaca enters she bursts into the ring like a cat on fire, tearing from one end—some 40yards across—to the other. After the ganadero has gotten an initial sense of how she moves and charges, the passes with the muleta begin. It's encouraging. The other students make it look possible. They approach her until she paws the ground and charges, and, magically, she does what they want, passing back and forth, chasing the cape. Then it is my turn.

Something's happened, though, while I've been waiting; the other students and the instructors have shown me the spirit of bullfighting. Now and then the ganadero calls out commands—he wants to see her use her left horn, he wants her approached from a greater distance. The students give him what he is asking for. You can also see them thinking: I love this like nothing else. Above all, Santiago is extraordinary to watch, a realized example of the link people talk about between flamenco and torear: his dance with the vaca is so precise and gentle, so exquisitely and imperturbably full of grace, that watching him, it seems as if he and the vaca have been given a brilliant, detailed choreography to practice together, and he is leading her in a perfect culmination of the steps.

Watching him do this—watching him think, This is the moment I have been waiting for—is extraordinary.

It makes the instant when the vaca charges at full speed and plunks me in the hip with a considerable and alarming force pretty much worth it. I've forgotten my technique! My wrist was weak! My feet may or may not have been apart! My knees were definitely bent. I forgot about throwing out my chest and walking with my balls altogether. I wasn't expressing my essential being, unless my essential being is: dumb enough to stand there and get hit.

"Get away from her!" Coleman shouts. "Move back!" The vaca considers me from a distance. "Now go straight at her!" Coleman yells. "Go straight at her!"

Go straight at her?It seems to me she's figured out that one of these people is not like the others. She knows what she's doing, and the other students know what they're doing, but this one is a dopey bull's-eye.

Still, the dopey bull's-eye goes straight at her. And here she comes! And this time, I think, my back is straight, my left hand is on my hip, my arm is locked and extended. Maybe they're not, but I feel right, I feel straight and almost, well, proud. I sweep the muleta back, and instead of my body, she chooses the cape and sweeps past me and under it. She wheels around and comes back almost without pausing; I offer the muleta backhand, and she follows it again.

Good God! Or, I mean, Olé! What a feeling! Over the course of the afternoon, she—and a few of her sisters—will get a piece of me more than once, tossing me triumphantly. Only a few more times will I take a vaca from here to there to here. But I have, if sloppily and without style, successfully guided a charging cow where I want her to go, and blood is thumping through my heart as I exit the ring.

The ganadero is there, and gives me a brief, kind smile. Paulina, his wife, is standing next to him. She has an earthenware shot glass waiting for me, and it's filled with tequila. "Tome," she says. Drink. I don't hesitate.

The California Academy of Tauromaquia (619/709-0664; offers weekend courses in San Diego from $300, and three- to five-day sessions in Mexico and Spain from $1,340 per person, all-inclusive.

DAN HALPERN has written for magazines including the New Republic and Colors.

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