Dancing With Death

“Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honour.” – Ernest Hemingway (Death in the Afternoon)


Part 2: El Tercio de Banderillas

It’s a hot May evening in the Spanish capital. The sun blares down on you with 30 degree (celsius) heat and a bead of sweat rolls down your back. Down in the ring the air is thick and dusty and two bodies are locked in a standoff. The banderillero, clad in glorious red and black, puffs his chest out and raises his arms in a fantastic display of alpha prowess; the bull scrapes its hoof in the sand.

A tradtional bullfight (Spanish: corrida de toros) is every bit as dramatic and flamboyant as it sounds, and it doesn’t get much bigger than at Las Ventas, Madrid. Last Sunday night I attended such an occasion in a bid to gain some insight into Spanish “tradition” and “culture” and it was simply something that I felt I needed to do. I’m no fool; I knew exactly what I was letting myself in for and, as expected, I despised it. However to a certain degree I couldn’t help but be intrigued by it, which begs the question: is bullfighting a dying art, or simply a barbarous blood sport?

A Spanish corrida is a drawn-out and sensual affair consisting of three parts. The first part, called el tercio de varas, allows the matador to observe the bull as it chases the thrusts of the pink and gold capes of the banderilleros. He observes the way it moves, reacts, its speed and its preferences before being joined by two picadores. Los picadores enter the arena and lance the bull from atop heavily padded and blindfolded horses, thus provoking an attack on the horse and causing blood-loss that weakens the bull. During the second part, el tercio de banderillas, the banderillos one by one attempt to plant two colourfully adorned spiked sticks (los banderillas) into the shoulder muscles of the bull causing further blood-loss and weakening of the animal but simultaneously provoking and further angering it. By the third part, el tercio de muerte(literally ‘the third of death’), the bull is exhausted and slowly and tortuously edging towards certain death. The matador re-enters the ring armed with a small red cape (muleta) in one hand and a sword (estoque) in the other. The matador, using his cape, entices the bull into a series of passes, flaunting his control over the animal and casually dicing with his own life. The third part ends with la estocada, the act of fatally plunging the sword between the bull’s shoulder blades, severing the aorta or heart, however the bull may take a while to die and therefore a coup de grâce is carried out by el puntillero who pierces the spinal cord, finally killing the animal.

What I witnessed throughout the “performace” was an animal, undoubtedly drugged and starved for days, released into arena to be ceremoniously taunted and murdered in front of 23,000 spectators in the name of tradition, culture and art and it was nowhere near as magnificent as I was lead to believe it to be. I envisaged a one man, one bull face-off between two alpha-males dancing to the death with nothing but sand and a red cape between them. I expected an equal and balanced display of nerve, power and stamina when in fact what I actually watched was an eleven on one attack which ended in the bull’s limp and bleeding corpse being dragged out of the plaza by three mules. There was no display of power, only cowardice, and certainly no respect for the noble bull. The matador waited until his cronies had weakened and tired the animal before he dared face it, and even during the first third the banderilleros would cower behind fences while the bull grunted and scratched at the ground.

Sitting in that arena surrounded by cheers of “¡olé!” and cries of “¡mátale ya!” (“kill it already“) I’d never felt more foreign and detached from Spain and Spanish culture, not even when I first moved to Spain and couldn’t get my tongue around the language. People were startlingly entertained by what they were seeing and the vast majority appeared to be seasoned regulars. The horror, anger and disgust that erupted from within me upon the first strike in the bull’s shoulders made it impossible for me to fathom how a person could get enjoyment from watching such a thing. I spent two-thirds of the “show” hoping that the bull would muster up some god-like strength and gore the matador right in the crown jewels. That would serve him right, right?

Ten days have passed and I’m still numbed by disbelief in what I saw, and particularly by the fact that I was sat in a full house (although I hear they’re not usually that full these days). To my eyes, I saw no evidence of a decline in popularity or indeed aversion, however this is just once aspect of Spanish “culture” that I cannot and absolutely will not get on board with. Is it a dying art? Or is it dying for art? I can’t make that choice for you, but I can perhaps shed some light onto why the ladies continue to attend…