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The Corrida: A Dance with Death

The Corrida: A Dance with Death

An American Expat’s Perspective on Bullfighting

When I decided to move to France, bullfights never crossed my mind. Who knew that traditional Spanish events existed in the south of France? Besides, I’m not a sports fan. My new fascination with the “barbaric spectacle” amazes even me.

Years ago, I attended a bullfight in Barcelona. It was during my college summer abroad. At that time, going to a bullfight was the “cool” thing for 20-something American tourists to do in Barcelona. All I remember was that I bought a poster and carried it around for years. Life went on.

This summer at the Feria de Nimes it all changed. Visions of bulls, matadors and swinging red capes have been swirling in my head since then. 

My dear friend Geoffrey extended the invitation to the Feria de Nimes. He suggested it would be a good story for my blog. Tagging along with my colorful friends for a day was the icing on the cake.

I had no idea a bullfight was a big deal in France, especially in Nimes. The crowd, the fanfare, and the circus-like atmosphere were shocking. Weren’t bullfights for old men? I wasn’t expecting to be among women, children, and young adults.

Close to five o’clock, the raucous crowd around the cafes and drink stands started moving toward the arena. My friends and I filed with them into the Plaza de Toros spectator area. Climbing cautiously up into the “bleachers” in the two thousand-year-old coliseum, we found our seats. Better yet, the description should be “stones with backrests.”

Once in my place, I noticed the crowd was almost silent. The sounds of piped-in music filled the space that I had expected to be boisterous, like a pre-game football stadium.

In no time, my mind wandered off. My imagination kicked in. I was transported to another time, the same place. It was Roman days again, with this arena in Nimes filled with onlookers to watch a gory contest of men against beasts.

When the band started playing, and the pomp and ceremony of the paséillo began, the first act of an extravagant ballet unfolded before my eyes.

Later, I learned that each act is expertly choreographed.

What do I know about bullfights?

If there’s anything I’m not, it’s an expert on bullfighting. In fact, for an American expat like me to profess to be an expert on anything in this country, it would be absurd. So please take most of my comments and observations on this tradition for precisely what they are: my own opinions.

To understand how I formed my opinions, I have been reading voraciously. Books by Ernest Hemingway described his views on every aspect of bullfighting. I have read books and articles by bullfight advocates and those who vehemently oppose the idea. Talking to anyone who could discuss the subject and attending twenty or more events at Ferias in Nimes, Arles, and St. Giles helped gel some of my thoughts.

Here are the facts I learned:

It’s a “corrida,” not a “bullfight.”

Calling a “corrida” a “bullfight” is like calling a football game a “wrestling match.” Players go to a football game to exercise their skills and to win, not for a fight.  A “corrida,” or “corrida de toros,” means “running of the bulls.” During a “corrida,”  six fighting bulls run, at separate times, into an arena where men (toreros) and sometimes women (torerae) with pink and red capes induce the bulls to run more.

“Toréadors” are Matadors

Toréador is the French word for Matador. As an English term, it went out of fashion before fighting bulls became a profession. It goes back to the days when nobility killed bulls on horseback with javelins for sport. If you speak English, the word to use is “matador.”

Fighting bulls are a unique breed.

While a “corrida” is not a “bullfight,” a bull raised for a corrida is not a farm animal. It’s a “fighting bull.” These bulls are not anything like those that roam through the North Carolina pastures I know.

A simple comparison between a farm bull and a fighting bull would be to compare a dog and a wolf or a pig and a wild boar.

If you have any questions about the nature and ferocity of a fighting bull, check out this video.

Most bulls for corridas in France are raised in Spain or Portugal. There are a few fighting bulls of Spanish origin at ranches in France, like Hubert Yonnet.

Until recently, I thought all bulls raised in the Camargue were fighting bulls. Not so. The physical configuration of the average Camargue bull, including its horn structure, is not the same as the Spanish strain of fighting bulls. Camargue bulls are primarily exhibited in local festivals and street events. (See previous posts)

What do I think about Corridas? 

There is a big difference between “fact” and “opinion.” I used to write articles for newspapers that had to be “factual,” not emotional. (Where did those days go in journalism?) The statements above are factual. I can show you multiple reliable sources as proof.  The arguments that follow are my opinions based on books I’ve read, from attending 20 or more corridas, from watching bulls being butchered behind the arena, and mostly, I’ve done a lot of soul-searching. Anyone who knows me can attest I’m an animal lover.

Yes, I love animals. Particularly fighting bulls.

A statement by Orson Welles, a great American filmmaker and writer, helped me understand how to draw a line between the “animal rights” part of my brain and the “corrida” part.

“Either you respect the integrity of the drama the bullring provides, or you don’t…. what you are interested in is the art whereby a man using no tricks reduces a raging bull to his dimensions, and this means that the relationship between the two must always be maintained and even highlighted.”

“Good matadors love the bulls they fight,” says Ernest Hemingway.


A corrida is not a sports event.

Because a corrida takes place in an arena, some think it’s a sport. Have you been to a corrido?

To me a corrida is a ballet. A dance with death.

Put to music, with extravagant scenery. Skillfully choreographed. 

The plot is simple: The bull is the hero. He shows off his innate ability to spar with an aggressor, self-protect, and prove what the Spanish call “his nobility.”

The Matador is the main character in the ballet. Always in danger of death, he decides the brilliance of the performance by “his honor.”

There are good corridos and bad ones.

Corridas are good and evil, and some are ugly. The same can be said about football games.  Like ball players, matadors have bad days.

“A bullfighter is not always expected to be good, only to do his best,” says Hemingway. ” He is expected to do his best with the bull. But once his honor is gone, you cannot be sure that he will do his best or do anything at all except technically fulfill his obligation by killing the bull.”

Football fans and bullfight aficionados wish for the best. They accept the rest. Everyone knows the difference.

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The bull is the hero.

Most times a bull dies at the end of the corrida des toros. More bulls die than matadors. Simple logic says bulls are victims.

Let’s go back to the ballet analogy.

When you attend a Swan Lake, Giselle, or Romeo and Juliet performance, you know someone will die. No matter how many times you attend the same ballet, it has the same ending. The beauty of the ballet is how masterfully the story is laid out before you, how skillful the dancers perform, and how you feel about the one who died and the one who remains.

Who is the victim? Who is the hero?

Ernest Hemingway describes the bull in A Corrida as a “hero.” A “fearless bull” is one that “charges in a straight line, which responds to all the cites of the bullfighter, which grows braver under punishment.”

A fighting bull fears nothing. Raised respectively and naturally, allowed to fight nobly to the death,  the fighting bull dies a hero.

The Picador isn’t the “bad guy.”

The role of the picador has changed dramatically over the years. Once one of the most dangerous jobs in a corrida — being attacked on horseback by a raging bull — the dangers associated with being a picador have been mitigated. Somewhat. The horse, by law, must be protected with a  “mattress” that wraps fully around the animal’s middle.  Before the regulation, a  horse died at each match-up. The man on horseback, however, still faces excellent peril.

Imagine a half-ton bull charging the horse you are riding, intending fully to kill it and you, too.  If the horse topples under you, or if your lose your balance on the saddle, there are only two places for you to land. You fall either on the bull’s horns or on the ground where you are likely to be trampled.  

I saw a horse fall at the Feria in St. Giles. At first, everyone in the arena thought the horse was dead. The picador jumped off and ran to safety. Undaunted by the capes thrown his way, the bull rammed the fallen horse repeatedly. I was sick to my stomach, thinking the bull had killed the horse.

Fortunately, the horse was only stunned, and he got back on his feet with the help of the team of men in the Plaza de Toros.  But just as the horse without a rider started out of the arena, the bull charged him again. This time, the full cuadrilla followed the bull to distract him from attacking the horse again.

It’s a dangerous business being a picador. I dreaded seeing them parade into the arena on their padded horses. “How cruel,” I thought.

This part of the ritual made me want to study more about corridos. “Why is it necessary to stab the bull between his shoulder blades with a spiked blade on a long spear.”

I wanted to understand how and why the act, so repugnant to me, is still allowed.

Banderilleros are bullies 

Lots of critics say, “Banderilleros are bullies.”  It appears the fancy-dressed acrobats are on the scene to only taunt the already-injured bull.  These dastardly men with flying darts play essential roles in the drama of man vs. beast. They help focus the bull on one thing: life or death at the hands of one man.

The Matador is the choreographer.

In the 30-minute ballet staged for spectators and history to judge, the Matador is the main character and the choreographer.

Other characters in the show, such as the cuadrilla,  work for the Matador. Picadors change the tempo of the bull and bring down the carriage of the bull’s head.  Toreos and Banderilleros run the bull through the arena to help the matador size up his competition. Their twists and turns with capes and banderillas help note if a bull hooks his horns one way or another. They evaluate how the bull runs — straight or if he cuts back to chase the man — and if the bull charges with both eyes open.

“You cannot learn to be a full matador any more than you can learn to be a major-league ballplayer, an opera singer, or a good professional boxer,” claims Hemingway.  The three great requisites for a matador are ” courage, skill in his profession, and grace in the presence of the danger of death,” he says.

Depending on his skill and honor, the Matador determines if the drama is well-played or a “bomb.”

A three-act performance

There are three distinct parts of the corrida. They are the same today as in the past. In Spain it’s called “los tres tercios de la lidia.”

Act one is the “suerte de varas.”  Hemingway calls it the “trail of the lances.” In this opening act, the bull faces the picadors on horseback. The action starts when the dazed bull, having entered the arena where he’s confined in a circle and surrounded by a crowd of spectators, spots the first thing familiar- a horse. He charges the horse. That’s what bulls do.

The fact that a spear cuts into the bull’s shoulder blades doesn’t surprise him. Perhaps he expects his attack to have consequences. Most often, the brave bull pulls back to strike the horse repeatedly. The act is over when the “president” of the bullring — an official appointed by law to supervise the corrida—- signals the bugler to blow his horn.

A “bull therapist,” if there was such a thing, might suggest that, at the end of act one, the bull thinks he’s the winner.

He sees everyone else has left the stage.

Act two features Banderilleros with fancy footwork, who runs the bull nearly breathlessly around the ring. Hemingway calls Act One “the trail.” Act two is the “sentencing.” If done well, it’s over quickly without destroying the bravery and strength of the bull.

Act three is the “execution.”  The Spanish call this act the “moment of truth.” It takes place in fifteen minutes. The curtain opens with the Matador waving a red-capped muleta in his left hand to show how artfully he dominates the bull. If the animal hooks from one side or another, the Matador corrects the bull’s charge. He makes the bull lower his head.

With a sword in his right hand, the Matador urges the bull forward. He kills from in front, driving the sword in his right hand high up between the bull’s shoulder blades.

To kill the bull correctly, the Matador is in line with the bull’s horns. One wrong move can mean death. The artist knows this is the point in the “dance with death,” where he may not live to see the masterpiece completed.

Bulls often survive the strike of the sword. It takes a perfect hit by the Matador to lay the vast creature dead. For a matador to feel a bull with one sword in the correct position, he is highly praised and rewarded.

It’s just a steak.

At the end of the day, the fighting bull ends up on someone’s table as a steak dinner. From what I’ve seen and heard, corrida bulls are butchered onsite. Quickly.

I watched a bull from the arena drawn by a team of men and horses to the “back lot.” It was sobering. Seeing the once-majestic animal being hoisted up by his back legs with a hook and chain attached to the back of a truck and observing every move as the bull was delivered to the butcher standing nearby brought me from a trance to reality. Suddenly, I saw the whole day’s event for what it was: the death of an animal for a steak dinner.

After sitting on a bleacher for a long time, looking down with my head between my hands, I thought about the bull, his life, and his death. I tried to imagine how he felt before the moment of truth. Then I thought about the animals that are killed every day to feed meat-hungry nations. To me,  there was no question. I’d choose to die nobly.

The bravery of the bull is at the heart of the Corrida drama. The honor of the Matador determines the outcome. There are no re-runs, no second seasons with the cast. Like other art forms, the truth and beauty is for the beholder.



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