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Matador for a Day

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.

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