A Beginner’s Guide to Bullfighting

Artwork by Candace La

First, some technical terms:

banderilla — long pointy sticks with flags on the ends; used to weaken the bull

burladero — the walls you hide behind when you’re in the arena

capote — the bigger pink and yellow cape

corrida — Spanish-style bullfighting

matador — (s)he who fights bulls

muleta — the smaller red cape

péon — the guy whose job it is to draw the bull away when the matador is in danger

remate — a finishing pass used to lead the bull somewhere else in the arena

tienta — not a real bullfight; a testing of young, immature bulls

verónica — a pass performed with a capote, where the matador sweeps the cape across his body, while the bull follows its edge along the ground, head down and headfirst

Then, the three stages of a bullfight:

1. Tercio de Varas: the matador’s introduction

The paso doble, often thought of as a Spanish dance though it originated in France, is perhaps the most forgettable of all latin dances in syllabus, a fact which I have always lamented as a syllabus dancer. Many collegiate competitions neglect to even hold a separate event for paso doble at each respective level. I imagine there are a few reasons why. Despite having perhaps the least amount of technique in comparison to the other dances, paso doble’s phrasing often makes it difficult to lead and follow. Furthermore, fundamental steps are often too stylized to teach to newcomers with expectations of correct execution, much less exciting performance. Then there’s the music, which has a notably specific time signature — I doubt you’ll catch yourself listening to a Meghan Trainor song on the radio and have that “A-ha!” moment when you realize it can be danced as a paso doble.

However, I had my original interest in dance piqued by the film “Strictly Ballroom,” which presents paso doble in its glory during its final scene, and so paso doble was all I knew until I started learning Dancesport formally in college. The flashing gold and black of a paso jacket, the swirl of a red flamenco skirt. It was exaggerated and dramatic and beautiful.

Paso stands apart from the rest of the latin dances because it is a character dance. Dancers embody a cultural phenomenon they likely have never experienced — the art of the corrida. The lead is supposed to embrace the spirit of the matador: powerful, brave, dominating. The follow’s role involves a bit more creativity. According to some, she’s the bull; to others, she’s the cape. That being said, the best advice I ever received as a follow myself is that you have to create your own character within the narrative of the dance. The relationship between the lead and follow in paso doble is meant to be tense, heightened, but also respectful, wary. I was told that you could perform the dance as a woman in love with the matador, who is about to risk his life in the arena. Or as Carmen, from Bizet’s opera; your former lover is coming to kill you, and you know he is coming to kill you, and yet you do nothing to stop it. However, one thing is for certain: the dance should evoke the vast emotion that the relationship between a matador and a bull can’t quite capture.

2. Tercio de Banderillas: the bull learns

One summer, I, a self-proclaimed paso doble aficionado, took the rare opportunity to travel to California and learn how to bullfight with a real matador for a week – an experience which would culminate in my very own tienta in Mexico. I would test the immature, untrained bulls and in turn practice the skills that I would hopefully have accumulated during my training.

Most of the week consisted of training with a muleta, with the instructor acting as the bull — “running the horns,” as they say, a way of practicing without an actual animal being present — and learning certain passes that I would use during my own bullfight. It was a lot of time spent in a deserted baseball field under the rather blistering San Diego sun, with my shoes becoming red from dirt and my hands becoming rough with callouses from holding the muleta for hours and my bank account becoming compromised to buy an absurd amount of aloe vera over the course of a week. At the time, it was difficult to see how anything I was learning could be applied to my dancing, despite the surprising amount of choreography that went into a bullfight.

It’s true that I practiced a certain sequence that I would be expected to repeat during my tienta, that there was a certain technique regarding my hips and pelvis that I could one day apply in certain moments of my paso doble routine after I reach open. However, soon we were on a ranch in Tijuana, in the arena, with a live bull, and it was all so real, and technique was the last thing on my mind. The same thing happens to me when I’m on the dance floor, sweating beneath the lights, standing before judges and teammates and friends and enemies and God himself, and I can’t bring myself to think of a single thing I’ve been taught.

More than anything I felt that day – more than the fear, the excitement, the triumph, the failure – I felt sympathy for the bull. For a tienta, it is typical to face a small, immature bull who doesn’t understand what is going on and reacts the way trained matadors expect them to react — the perfect practice tool for an inexperienced student of corrida. However, my bull was angry. He wasn’t very strong, and maybe he didn’t understand what was happening, but he reacted to everything with fierce aggression. He anticipated our movements, those of us in the arena, and refused to respond to our tricks, the way we flicked the edges of the muleta in order to redirect his attention. He had no patience for our games.

Despite a week of practice, I managed only a few successful passes before the bull charged straight for me. He was small, and his horns were not very long, and I wasn’t injured over the course of my tienta. However, by the end, I couldn’t help but feel that the little bull had beaten us all, even the experienced matadors who eventually were able to direct it around the arena successfully. We had tried very hard, to lead the bull on – to trick it and make it do what we wanted it to do – and it only responded in offensive anger, rather than defensive fear. I understood him to that extent.

3. Tercio de Muerte: the killing blow

Paso doble stands apart from the rest of the latin dances because it is a character dance, but also because it features highlights, or crashes, which occur during the dance once or even twice at the open level and one final time to end the round. At this final crash, the lead and follow strike a pose, and often for stylistic reasons the woman is positioned with her body sprawled, exposed, or collapsed against the man’s, a representation of the matador’s defeat of the bull. It is the final culmination of this tense, passionate, emotional relationship.

Perhaps you can smirk your way through cha cha, flirt your eyes through samba, feign sexual attraction through rumba, and drive yourself crazy grinning at the audience through jive. However, neither cha cha nor samba nor rumba nor even jive are designed to represent a narrative as clearly as paso doble. Of course, every dance should tell a story. But the story of the paso doble is scripted, in a way – you can create a character, yet not the context of the dance, the life that it has taken on throughout the history of Latin American dancing. All you can do is configure yourself within the context of a matador’s story. Paso doble is a dance of strong emotion, and that emotion can and should be reinforced by something real and vital, a living, breathing, experience.

And now, for an epilogue:

The world of Dancesport is a very easy place to fall in love. It’s a small, intimate world. A lot of time is spent in the same spaces with the same teammates, the same mentors, in the same studios, the same competitions, the same hole-in-the-wall restaurants that you visit at midnight after a long competition day, the same late nights and plane flights and bus rides. Emotions run high. You care so much about the same thing, and that thing is dance. It’s an easy place to fall in love — with the sport, and with people who dance with you.

However, it’s not a very easy place to fall out of love. When a relationship ends, the people who hurt you will be the people you see in the studio every day, receiving praise from the very same coaches who criticize you, receiving ribbons from the very same competitions where you struggle to make rounds. Your entire conception of what dance is and what dance means can be built and informed by a single person, which is another way of saying that your entire conception of what dance is and what dance means can be consumed and destroyed by a single person.

Endings are hard. Almost all endings are. To fight them, to try to prevent them with all of your might in a desperate, pleading effort in order to avoid the ensuing pain is simply survival. But sometimes it is best to let go.

This, too, I could learn from the bull.

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