Dancing with Death

“Living without bullfighting is not living.”

This may be a simple quote, but it expresses the weight and significance of bullfighting to one of Spain’s top matadors, Jose Tomas. In a tradition where one wrong step can lead to a deadly consequence, Tomas lives for the moments when he is dancing with death. He is known for his daring bullfighting style, in which he draws the bull dangerously close to his body with his cape.

Although the bullfighting tradition is surrounded by controversy and has recently been banned in the region of Catalonia, one thing can be agreed upon: The passion and the dedication the matadors have for this ancient art.

This past July marked Tomas’s return to the bullring after being nearly fatally gored in Mexico one year ago. Despite his near-death experience and months long recovery, Tomas knew he would return. The line he walks during a bullfight, between life and death, causes him to feel more “alive” than at any other moment.

For many, bullfighting consists of the matador waving his red cape in front an angry bull…and that’s about it. But the history and tradition behind bullfighting make it much more than its stereotypical image.

The spectacle of bullfighting has been in existence since ancient Rome, but the bullfight we know and see today started in the mid-1700s. Before this time, men on horseback were the main focus as well as the ones killing the bulls. But as bullfighting developed, the men on foot, who aided the horsemen by positioning the bulls with their colorful capes, began to attract more attention from the crowds. This began the modern form of bullfighting we see today.

A usual corrida consists of three matadors, each of them killing two bulls. The first phase of the bullfight is what many people think of when they think of bullfighting: the bull comes rushing out into the arena and the matador swiftly goes through a series of movements and passes with a large cape. A matador is met with applause depending on how close he is to the bull, his calm manner and the graceful maneuvers he accomplishes with his cape.

During the second phase, men on horseback come into the bullring and throw lances, or banderillas, into the back and shoulders of the bull. This is done to lower the bull’s head for the eventual kill.

The third phase of the bullfight is usually the most dangerous. The bull has become weaker during the fight, but it also begins to sense that its enemy may be behind the matador’s cape. This causes the bull to become more aggressive as it charges the matador’s cape. Through a series of ballet-like passes during this final stage, the matador increases tension and anticipation in the audience as he continues to decrease the space between himself and the bull. When the moment is right, the matador strikes the bull between the shoulder blades with his sword and the bullfight is over.

Bullfights are characterized by an entrancing, mysterious silence. The matador becomes lost in his art as he dances closer and closer with death.

Another one of Spain’s famous bullfighters, Francisco Rivera Ordonez, said in a 60 Minutes interview, “We create this real personal connection and feeling between us [the bull and matador]. You kind of have a connection, a conversation with gestures, with time, with movement…you kind of lose reality.”

References: Spanish-fiesta.comCBSNews.com

This was originally published on Andalucia Inside.