In appreciation of the Corrida de Toro
I saw my first bullfight in Madrid.
I’m a good liberal New Yorker, and thus I justifiably expected to be horrified by bullfights or disgusted, or even left empty… not exhilarated. That was both a shocking and shameful surprise.
Bulls and men have a rich shared history. Bulls have been worshiped and sacrificed since prehistoric times and the killing of a sacred bull was the critical act of Mithras, commemorated wherever Roman soldiers were stationed. Spain owes much to its roots in the Roman Empire. Language, cuisine, public works, and of course bullfighting, which may be one of the closest direct links we have today to the Gladiatorial games.
Men stand in the arena and pit themselves against beasts. In fact, the Latin translation of “arena” is “sand”, and dates back to its use on the dueling floor of the Roman Coliseum. The brave men on today’s sands however fight not at the whim of the Emperor or the Roman crowds, but by choice. They willingly enter the ring, risking life and limb to challenge the beasts that spring from ordinary gates, rather than underground trapdoors. These same gates admit both man and beast – because the matadors and bulls fight as (relative) equals.
Not everyone loves the bullfights. I spent over thirty minutes in the September heat in line for tickets at the Plaza de Toros before I received my ticket. Once inside, I then had to wait in the cool, dimly lit concrete entry tunnel that funnels patrons to the inner Arena. It was the same restriction you’d expect to find at a Broadway show, where the ushers hold back latecomers, waiting for a appropriate pause to admit them to their seats. I passed up the opportunity to buy a seat cushion (dark brown, leathery and plush) and instead occupied my time by speaking passable Spanish to a ticket taker named Javier.
He was good-natured, handsome, in his late 20s and seemed surprised when he discovered that I was American. “Most Americans… they do not like this”, he told me. “And you – what do you think?” I asked. He inclined his head, shaking it sadly. “Not so much… The blood, you know?” We traded pleasantries about where we had grown up as I masked my anxiety about having spent a lot of money on tickets to something I might not want to see after all. Thoughts of Hemingway were replaced by disquieting fantasies of gore. Then, before I could talk myself out of it, the crowd roared, the doors swung open and I was swept along to my place on the bench. A middle-aged man shifted over, I squeezed in looked around for the fist time.
I was ten rows up from the action, in a section called Sombra. Seating is broken down into sections – Sol, Sol y Sombra and Sombra – Sun, Sun & Shade, and Shade. My location couldn’t have been better. I could look across at the few dedicated fans in the Sol section, broiling in the heavy late afternoon sun. The building, though relatively new to Madrid, had the patina of age: cool greys and dusky sandstone. It made the electrifying pink, gold, teal, and (of course) reds of the Matadors’ costumes pop by contrast. These splendid outfits are called traje de luces or “suit of lights” and they truly seem to be illuminated from within.
The fans are less spectacular, made up of an odd assortment of international tourists and locals. The day I visited, there was a large contingent of middle-aged Chinese men sitting behind me, who giggled girlishly and chain-smoked cigarettes underhand-style. They seemed titillated by the suffering of the animals, which disturbed me more than the realization that I wasn’t appalled myself.
Instead, bullfighting struck me as a beautiful dance – where the matador leads and the bull plays his unwilling partner. The best of them make this give and take seem effortless. The lesser fighters seem crude and awkward by comparison.
You would think if you’ve seen one match, you’ve seen them all but this isn’t the case. The bulls all have individual personalities, just like their opponents. Some are angry, snorting chargers. Others hang back and attack seemingly at whim.
It is this individuality that lends interest to the matches. Skill levels are critical here as a good bullfighter (or toreador ) can draw out the duel to the delight of the crowd. Conversely, a bad one can draw things out by missed jabs with his sword, forcing the bull to work, and work, as the crowd grows restless and sympathetic to his cause. In rare cases, when a bull has fought with extreme bravery, the crowd may petition to have him spared. If granted, this pardon entitles the lucky bull to exit the arena with his life and spend the rest of his days as a stud. (Literally).
The fight itself is broken into thirds. First, the matador takes the measure of his opponent in a series of passes. Next, a picador enters the arena on horseback armed with a lance, which he uses to prick the bull’s shoulders in order to anger and focus said bull as it expends energy attacking the padded horse’s side. His compatriots, the banderillas then take turns running at the bull in a psychotic, risk-filled attempt to poke him with sharp sticks that are decorated with flowers. Consider it the anti-lei.
Eventually, the matador re-enters the ring alone with a small red cape and a sword. Like many others, I assumed that the color red was designed to inflame the passion of the bull, but I couldn’t have been more wrong — bulls are colorblind. The bull is instead enticed by the cape’s movement into a series of passes, ever closer to the body of the matador. It all culminates in an attempt to maneuver the bull into a position to stab it between the shoulder blades and through the heart.
The best of the matches I saw was the fourth of the night – the matador showed no doubts, no fear, nor missteps as with each deft swing of his red cape, he choreographed run after run by his foe. He inspired escalating screams of “Ole… Ole… OLE!” while effortlessly working his dance partner into a breathless frenzy and similarly leaving the crowd without air. Then he decisively ended things with a single plunge of the sword and perfectly closed the performance in an instant.
The crowd shrieked their approval, and even I was drawn to my feet to applaud. The torreador made the rounds of the stands, receiving the standing adulation of the crowd, who saluted him with swirling white flags and bullfight tickets waved like rally towels at a baseball game.
Finally he returned to the pen but his performance lingered in the fading daylight. Because in the end, bullfights aren’t about the outcome, but about the style in which they’re enacted. No matter where one comes down – in favor or against bullfighting, there’s little point in denying that it’s a fairer fight than in a slaughterhouse. At least in the arena, these magnificent beasts reap the applause that they’re due.