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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2000-07-28

The (Not So) Dangerous Summer
Facing the Horns in Spain

By Jim McNay

Photo by
"We're going to have bullfighting classes in Madrid, and you can fight a Spanish calf? Want to come?"

"Hmmm." I thought. "Does Eric Risberg like cigars? Does Ron T. have an affection for Nikon?"

"I'm there. Tell me when."

OK, it would mean missing the NPPA convention in San Francisco, but there's a dark side of the moon too.

The classes would be sponsored by the San Diego-based California Academia of Tauromaquia. This is a group of Americans and others who have either fought professionally at some level or who aspire to learn all they can about this particular art form, sometimes called a sport.

My involvement with the academy began a couple of years ago when I discovered the school while cruising the web for anything about bullfighting. The school teaches the use of the capes in salon classes (i.e., without animals, just with humans running the horns back and forth.) This is a good way to learn the basics. It's a bit like a dance class. Instructors can break down the moves, slow down the pace, perfect a student's technique and work toward developing muscle memory. If we're lucky, our practice is still in place when we eventually get in front of a live calf that wants to rip our legs off. But more on that later.

The first classes I took were at a public park's baseball diamond in greater San Diego. Since then under the school's guidance I've had a chance to face calves three times. Now here was a chance for #4.

A moment for a disclaimer. Bullfighting is a sensitive topic with Americans. You either love it or hate it. When I saw corridas in Spain I was absolutely bitten by the bug. Right then I promised myself if I ever had a chance to participate and understand the intricacies of why ferocious bulls take the cape instead of the man, I would do it.

Americans have to realize bullfighting, called the La Fiesta Brava or La Fiesta Nacional, is a key to fully comprehending the culture of Spain, and perhaps the entire Latin world. The corrida is interwoven to such a degree that to leave it out of one's understanding of Spain, Mexico or Latin America is to leave a gap in the complete picture of the people and what they are about.

And no I won't debate anyone about it or try to convince them of my point of view. You either get it or you don't. To borrow from ESPN, "You don't like bullfights? Move to Norway!"

Monday and Tuesday, June 26 and 27, 2000 - A five-hour flight from SFO to Miami and an eight-hour flight across the Atlantic and viola, Madrid!

Only oops! It's now Tuesday. I'm a day behind the other students in our group. The rest of the gang has already trained for evening. I meet up with Coleman Cooney, director of the California academy. From our hotel near the Spanish cortes (parliament) it's a brisk walk to the Parque del Buen Retiro near the Prado to start practicing with the capes.

Our group is sufficiently international. Besides myself there is Rick, a school teacher from Ohio who was in a previous class with me; Keith, an American who is part of the two-person Wall Street Journal bureau in Madrid; Javier, a Southern Californian also here to face his fourth animal in the ring; and the Dutch contingent, Mirko and Hans, who along with Keith, are studying all this for the first time.

Generally we have the days to ourselves, then train about three hours in the evening roughly from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. when Madrid starts to cool off. We are scheduled to have a tienta or "testing" at a ranch with animals on Saturday. This will put us in front of small to medium-sized calves so we can see if we can demonstrate anything we learn.

Photo by Sebastian Widmann

Photo by Sebastian Widmann
Coleman loves to ratchet up the tension, so walking to the park he asks, "OK, McNay. If you have an animal all to yourself on Saturday, and you can work through the entire program starting with the animal entering the ring, what will you do?"

Presenting a complete program - as opposed to just making a few passes - becomes my focus for the week. In class, everyone works through the drills with this in mind, since chances look good for each of us to have an animal to ourselves. That may not always be the case back home where circumstances at a ranch may cause us to share a calf with another student.

So, the first step is to work on opening passes with the capote, the large pink and yellow cape. This is used when the animal first enters the ring. It provides a large target and allows for some of the prettiest and most decorative passes.

Coleman drills me on backing up, giving ground and then swinging the animal wide in an ellipse, then repeating the process. Next I work on stopping, planting my feet and making the classic first close passes, the veronicas. After a series of three to five of these, we need a decorative finishing pass or ramate.

Coleman is on my case from the beginning. While running backwards I'm bouncing like a ball. "Toreros don't bounce!" he hollers and I work on just moving backwards without the hops. He's also successful at crowding me as he plays the bull chasing me as I work the capote. This tells me that I'd get nailed by a real animal. Got to stay awake, work on maintaining a safe, but artfully respectable distance. I can tell I'm rusty.

But livestock don't care if you're jet lagged or not. They just want to knock you down. It's a rough but good first session. I'm reminded how valuable it is to go back over the basics. I understand why dancers go to class every day and return back to the barre for basic exercises.

Then we work with the muleta, the smaller red cape. Since the sword (for us a wooden mock sword that is lighter than one of steel) is always held in the right hand, we get to use it to extend the size of the cape. A larger cape means a larger target and less risk for us as we start the faena, or final act of the bullfight.

We practice high passes bringing the animal's horns past the chest, back and forth. Then rest a few seconds, readjust the cape, let the animal take some breaths, then transition into low passes with the right hand, bringing the animal across the chest and legs. This involves putting the cape in front of the body, shaking it and calling the animal, moving the cape as s-l-o-w-l-y as possible across the body yet not letting the animal touch it, and then releasing.

Forget the old notion about bulls being angry at red capes. They're colorblind! Livestock are interested in motion. If you keep your feet still (try it sometime!) and move the cape to their outside eye, then shake it and call them, they will go for the cloth. At least most of the time.

The goal is to put together a series of linked passes that have some artfulness about them. For beginners like us, just one series of four to five passes is a win and an adrenaline rush like nothing else. The better one gets, the more of these linked passes one hopes to do. And the closer a matador can bring himself to the animal while all this is happening, the more dramatic the presentation.

After some work with the right hand, it is over to the left. Here the target is smaller, because the sword that was extending the target remains in the right hand. So the muleta is as small as it will get. Passes on the left are called "naturals." The cape simply hangs down, draped over a piece of wood.

Among aficionados it is the work a matador does with the left hand that counts. Here he is in the most danger with this small target. But this is where he gets to demonstrate the greatest ability. Matadors who never take the cape in the left hand during a faena are often thought to have given less than their best. So in class we work on both right and left hand passes.

About 9 p.m. with the sun going down, we call it a night. Back again tomorrow for the next round.

But hey! This is Spain. The Land Where No One Has Dinner Before 10 p.m. Hey, Bull Dudes, we gotta party!

So a quick shower at the hotel and out to the local sherry bar and tapas at 10:30 p.m. (How long HAVE I been up now?) But what the hell. It's Spain! And Coleman, who lived in Madrid for eight years and who speaks excellent Spanish is a great guide. He really knows the turf.

Then dinner around the corner. Platters of salad and lamb and a great house wine. The night moves on, no one is tired, but we call it a night at 12:30 a.m. Ah, Europe!

Wednesday, June 28: In the morning we go to Madrid's plaza de toros to visit the bullfight museum. It is an easy subway ride and the museum is free. Lots to see, including professional matadors suits of lights, swords, mounted heads of famous bulls, and a great collection of paintings, prints and busts of famous toreros.

Photo by Jim McNay

Photo by Jim McNay
Then off to Casa Fermin, the supplier of exquisite capes, swords, traditional decorative clothing and equipment. Once inside, it is torero heaven. There are shelves of capes everywhere, and display cases of everything else they carry. I was there to check out capotes. I tried a couple, eventually opting for the lighter of the two. It felt like something I could handle.

The key moment of the visit was when the young man assisting me put my name in heavy black ink inside the back of the cape and added the Fermin stamp to the left and right. It felt like I had just been to the Louisville Slugger factory and watched them burn my name into my own model bat. There's no feeling like picking up Your Own.

This evening's workout reminds us of the athleticism that goes into bullfighting. It borrows elements of dance or tai chi in that we practice these moves s-l-o-w-l-y so we'll absorb the classic technique. That also reminds us to try to slow down our moves when we face an animal in the ring. The art for the observant aficionado in part comes from a torero who can appear relaxed and at ease, who can dominate the animal, and make the passes long-long-long, extending the moment much as a filmmaker extends time by using slow motion. This is the artistry that - when it works - sends chills through spectators in the top last row of the plaza.

Thursday, June 29: We were looking at two more days to train, today and tomorrow, before facing our animals in the ring on Saturday.

Then Coleman drops the bomb.

We'll go to the ranch tomorrow for our tienta with the animals. That's Friday, not Saturday, a day earlier than expected. Yikes. Nothing like a deadline to focus one's attention. We work REAL hard in class tonight, to prep for tomorrow's live event.

Friday, June 30: We're actually going to a ranch near the beautiful walled city of Avila, about 70 miles northwest of Madrid. It belongs to a retired matador, Andres Hernando, a Spaniard who had a career in the 50s and 60s.

We're in luck because Rick, the teacher from Ohio, actually saw this matador fight in Mexico City all those years ago. With his excellent command of Spanish, Rick forms a fast friendship with the matador that helps the maestro take us more seriously than he might otherwise. At least he knows we're here to work and learn, that we're not just a bunch of touristas messing around. And since Rick likes to train with the capes but has no interest in facing animals, his time with Sr. Hernando makes his day!

The matador shows us where we can change clothes. Most of us get diverted by his trophy room. It is full of photographs and cartels (bullfight posters) from his career. We see pictures of the greats: Manolete, Carlos Aruzza, El Cordobes and a triumphant picture of Sr. Hernando being carried out of the ring in Linares. Our respect and appreciation for this man, already peaking based on his hospitality, now ascends off the scale. We're in awe.

But we have to get to work. Animals await.

Coleman and some of the other experienced people assisting him look over the animals to figure out who will fight which one. The calves all have numbers branded into their sides, so this helps get the right animal in the ring at the right time.

At tientas like this, the student torero and the breeder both benefit. Since bulls are only allowed to be fought once because they learn the game so quickly and become deadly in a matter of minutes, females are tested at a ranch. This gives novices like us a chance to see what we have learned. It also gives the breeder an opportunity to see which of his animals appear brave and seem to have potential.

Those females who charge and who willingly take the cape time after time are rated and marked for breeding, hopefully to produce brave bulls for plazas de toros. Those who do less well will earn an early trip to the slaughterhouse.

The same is true of young fighting bulls. While they never face a man on foot with capes until they enter the professional bullring, by passing other important small tests along the way, those that appear brave live to age three or four. If they eventually appear as fighting bulls in a ring, they have been allowed to live one or two years longer than their less brave brothers.

In working out the pecking order for the day, Coleman first toys with letting the newest students start off first. However, he reverts to the tradition of the corrida and chooses an order based on seniority. That means either Javier or I are first up, since we had each faced three animals previously. Coleman settles the deal with, "Jim McNay, you're it!" How did I know I'd lead off? Hmmm. Grab the capote, big boy and get your ass in the ring.

It's knot-in-the-pit-of-the-stomach time as I take a few warm-up passes. Some of professionals assisting around the ring today offer "good luck" in English and "suerte" (luck) in Spanish. Nothing to do now but try to calm down, remember some of the finer points I've been working on all week and hope to hell The System works one more time: The animal goes for movement, not for the person.

In the ring, toreros are out to achieve a variety of landmarks on an ascending scale. For beginners like us, the first goal is to do what you are going to do in the ring and not get knocked down in the process. Getting run over means you've screwed up and the animal has attacked you, not the cape.

It also means the animal has a chance to injure you. With large animals that means they can wound you with a horn. While our animals have horns, they are unlikely to puncture us. However getting butted, rolled or trampled is no fun. An upending can send a novice flying head over heels like a defensive back upending a receiver. There are no helmets or pads here to protect against concussions or broken bones. These incidents are rare, but always a threat.

The easiest way to get knocked down is to move your feet as the animal approaches, providing that ever so attractive movement the animal wants. Move the cape and keep the feet still, you'll probably be fine.

The next biggest mistake is to back up once you have passed the animal. One of the hardest things to do as a beginner is to consistently step forward, moving the cape to the outside eye of the animal. It will charge, but seeing the cape first with the outside eye will help keep it clear of your body - which keeps it from knocking you down.

Photo by Sebastian Widmann

Photo by Sebastian Widmann
Beyond that, the torero wants to do his work and not be disarmed. If the animal captures the capote or later the muleta, one is left standing there with no protection. You have nothing to ward off the animal. To get away just step out of it's attack range, or let the assistants around the ring divert it's attention with their capes. But it's flat out embarrassing to be standing there without a cape looking like you're waiting for the next BART train!

My animal is let in the ring and we're underway. It's about the size of a couple I've faced before, but initially I don't notice this. When they are coming at you with a full head of steam, they always look way too f----ing big to handle. I've read this is common among matadors. All there is to do is, deal with it!

I bend a knee as if doing a stretching exercise and make a wide sweeping pass with the capote on one side. The animal takes the cape, hooves pounding the dirt sounding like something four times its size. (I try not to let this bother me as I pay Very Close Attention to everything else it is doing.) I recover, then repeat this wide move on the other side, testing the other horn. Again, it takes the cape. Success so far. Time to take it up a notch.

This time I stand up straight, swinging the cape to the side in the classic veronica opening pass. It works. I go for a series of these, doing three or four more veronicas, alternating sides, getting a good distance between passes, calling the animal each time. I've managed a series of linked passes. Ha! So far this animal is fine. It wants to charge and it takes the cape.

Now it's time to do a ramate or finishing pass and end this series. I approach one more time, call and half way through the veronica flatten the cape out in a rovelera, the decorative pass that twirls the cape around and flattens it out like a teenager twirling in a poodle skirt. It's one of the prettiest finishing passes there is and regularly gets the crowd's attention. It works and I move away, leaving the calf in the middle of the ring puffing, wondering where the cape went. So much for the opening. It's a good start. Now to the smaller, more dangerous muleta.

At the wall I change capes, arranging the muleta and wooden sword used for backing in the right hand. The faena or presentation we worked on in class called for opening with high passes. Stepping in, I get to a distance where I think the animal might charge, plant my feet together, shake the cape and call, "Toro, AH-ha." It charges flat out, going past my middle. I step forward (I remembered!), plant, shake and call again. It charges again. I get off a series of four or five of these, then set my feet apart to distinguish the finishing ramate. It passes and I move away. A good opening series with the muleta. And this a Good Animal. It's full of fire.

Taking a few moments to collect myself, I adjust the muleta and let the animal catch a few breaths. Now it's time to move in and try the low passes with the right hand. Again, I approach to what seems to be a distance from which I can make the animal charge. Now stop, shake the cape and call. It comes to the cape.

At this point I should be remembering to make the passes long and slow, but about now, I don't remember my name or day of the week. I mostly manage to remember to move forward, although a couple of times I forget and get butted in the thighs, the price of backing up. Idiot! Retreating is a design for disaster. I get yelled at by of the more experienced toreros around the ring, then get off a series of passes that works pretty well. Even with some rough moments, I'm managing to do the program we worked on in class.

Next, move the cape to the left hand for the passes called naturals. With the sword always in the right hand, the cape is now the smallest target it will be and in a sense with this ever-smaller target, I'm in the most danger so far. But the animal is good. It takes the cape even on the left. Back and forth several timesthen a long, slow (finally!) finishing ramate and the series is over! Success. The whole thing worked as designed.

My mouth is completely dry and I'm encouraged to take a moment for some water. It helps, but my heart is still beating about a thousand times a minute. This animal still has some passes in it, so it's not time to quit yet. I get some tips from my colleagues and go back out.

Now I do the final series of high passes we practiced in class, this time turning so each one is on the same horn. It works. Then it's back for several more series of right hand and left hand passes. Some work, some don't. Sometimes I forget to move forward and get banged in the legs. But for the most part, if I don't mess up, the animal takes the cape and does not cut in on me, which is great.

Photo by
In a real bullfight, about this time it would be time to take the sword and kill the animal with a thrust, going in over the horns. But at a tienta that is usually not done and that is not what we are here to do today. First, killing is for students well more advanced that we. None of us have trained to do this and we're not about to attempt it. Also, this tienta is designed to help the rancher decide which animals to keep and breed. We'll pass them with capes, and leave it at that.

So I give a signal to the others around the ring that I'm declaring victory and leaving the animal for others to cape, giving them a chance to see what they can do.

If the first challenges are to avoid getting knocked down and disarmed, the third rung of the ladder is to not be boring, to put on an entertaining demonstration. The Spanish speak of "la responsabilidad," the duty not to defraud the public. If one takes up the cape and is given the exceptionally rare opportunity to face an animal one-on-one, one has a responsibility to move forward when the natural inclination is to retreat, to dominate one's fears, to show courage in spite of everything.

I get a lot of positive comments from the others around the ring. Like the dog that preached the sermon (it was not so much what he said, it was that he spoke at all!) the Spaniards are always surprised to see an American in the ring, much less be somewhat effective at it.

So there's lots of encouragement from the spectators, the other students, and yes, Coleman. He was very pleased with my results. I not only got through the program he'd designed, but I had gotten additional passes out of the animal too. But previously I've learned toreros have good days and not so good days. Ifyou excel today, you may have body parts handed to you the next. Like a baseball player hitting four-for-four one afternoon, then going zero for four the next, quick turns of success and failure are part of the crazy taurine roller coaster.

A couple of guys around the fence will come out one at a time to test this animal. This will be the pattern for the rest of the afternoon, as animals are caped by the designated student and when that person has had enough, the animal is passed on to one or two others for practice turns. At the end of the day the animals will head back to the corrals and rejoin their siblings.

As the advanced students take their turns, I watch and learn a lot. While my work felt like I was going in high speed, fast-forward mode, the more experienced toreros are able to take the tempo w-a-y d-o-w-n, moving the cape slowly and with purpose. I see a whole different approach to caping the animal revealed now. These guys are so cool, so at ease out there. Back and forth the animals move. My god, these guys know how to torear!

So, even though I've just had a great lesson with my animal and the capes, the rest of the afternoon spent watching our class members and the professionals is a bonus lesson in what to do and what not to do. It reminds me once again that if you want to learn this, it is crucial to be in front of animals. Salon training with humans followed by live practice with calves is the only way.

So it's a successful day. Hell it's a glorious day! Facing an animal of Spanish blood on Spanish soil. Getting to visit a ranch and meet matador Andres Hernando who made his living at this. Hearing his stories, having our group be the recipient of his graciousness. It's too much to take in.

To top it off, Rick and I are designated to ride in Sr. Hernando's car back to Madrid. For Rick this exceeds what he could have imagined. He and the maestro speak Spanish the entire way and Rick soaks up everything he can from a man who fought in the important rings of the taurine world.

Passing by Avila, now with the walled city lit up in the darkness, it's gorgeous, like some perfect postcard one could only hope to design if all the elements were right. As I look across this landscape, it looks like something designed by Uncle Walt. Hey, Shaq, with castles in Spain, I don't need to go to Disneyland. I'm in heaven!

Photo by
*** For those who want to explore the bullfight world, a common traditional starting point even now is Ernest Hemingway's book, "Death in the Afternoon." It's a non-fiction account of what happens and why at the corrida. The reader will either want to know more or will have enough by the end of this volume. A group called Taurine Bibliophiles of America holds no meetings but shares information on bullfight books. For information call Jack Bona, 770-451-8070.

Many cities around the U.S. and the world have bullfight clubs, called penas, where aficionados meet monthly and socialize and sometimes have speakers or programs about some aspect of bullfighting. The San Francisco pena is called Sol y Sombra ("Sun and Shade") and can be reached by e-mail at: ArtBravo@veriomail.com. In Southern California Los Aficionados de Los Angeles can be reached at: bstracke@earthlink.net, or at P.O. Box 2691, Hollywood, CA 90028.

The closest locations for Americans to see real bullfights are in Mexico, most commonly either in the two rings in Tijuana or the world's largest in Mexico City. Other cities often have corridas during their annual festivals or saints days. Bloodless bullfights in the Portuguese style are held throughout each spring and summer in California's Central Valley. The schedule is posted on the website: http://alabanza.com/lusoplaza/bullfight.htm

Aficionados who want to learn capework and perhaps eventually face a calf can take classes with the California Academia of Tauromaquia in San Diego. They train regularly on Saturdays and do intensive courses for people on vacation or who have only a limited amount of time to spend in California. Their website is: http://www.bullfightschool.com/

To read and follow the taurine world via computer, the leading website devoted to this subject is Mundo Taurino. It can be found at: http://mundo-taurino.org/

(Jim McNay, an aficionado practico of two years, coordinates the photojournalism program at San Jose State University. He is currently on a year's leave to start a photojournalism program at Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara. Although he is a past president of NPPA, he missed this year's annual convention to attend torero classes in Madrid and to run with the bulls in Pamplona at the Festival of San Fermin. His e-mail addresses are: jmcnay@email.sjsu.edu or 73030.22@compuserve.com.)


Related Links:
mundo-taurino.org
www.bullfightschool.com

Related Email Addresses: 
Jim McNay: 73030.22@compuserve.com

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