Girl in the ring

Many a Spanish boy dreams of proving his manhood as a matador. But why would a girl risk life and limb against a raging bull?

A chilly breeze is blowing in Navaluenga, a dusty village at the end of a harshly beautiful winding road 100km west of Madrid, where Nuria Sanchez is getting ready for her first bullfight of the season. She squints doubtfully at the sky. "I don't mind if it rains," she says. "It's the wind that's the killer."

Nuria and her mother, Nico, are sitting on the bed in a mean little room in the village's only lodging house. She starts to dress, not in a spangled traje de luces ("suit of lights") in this modest venue, but the dark and chic traje corto. Nuria, 22, is a torera, a bullfighter, although strictly speaking she is as a novillera, a fighter of the younger two- or three-year-old animals called novillos.

"I love to dress for the fight," she says, stretching the braces on to her shoulders, smoothing down her front and fastening the hooks of the tight padded waistcoat. "The costume is wonderful; it transforms you. Once you're dressed as a torera you feel a special person. Because it's made to measure and you choose the colours and everything to suit you, so you know when you're tying up all those laces you're going to look good and feel right, and then when you're out in the ring ... well, I wouldn't change places with anyone."

Later, in the bullring, Nico sits huddled on the concrete terraces beneath leaden clouds. She is tense. "I'm always terribly afraid before a fight, because the bulls have no respect for anyone. I don't enjoy seeing my daughter facing death; I die seven deaths. I can't relax until the animal has been

killed." In the early days she tried staying away from the ring, "but that was worse". A single trumpeter and a drummer belt out the paso doble that accompanies Nuria into the ring. The crowd chomp at chorizo sandwiches, spit sunflower seed husks, squirt wine from leather bottles, and shout encouragement: "Si, senora!" and occasionally, gently ribbing, "Cristina, Cristina ..."

They are referring to bullfighting star Cristina Sanchez, the first woman in Spain to achieve bullfighting's top rank of matador, who fought for the first time in May as a fully fledged matador at the holy of holies, Las Ventas bullring in Madrid. She performed well, the papers said, not brilliantly, but honourably, and she was happy with the result. They reported her feat as if she were a man.

When Cristina first hit the headlines a couple of seasons ago, the question that reverberated around the macho world of bullfighting was: can someone sin cojones truly confront a man's defining moment and face death in the bullring? Now the pundits have shut up: they know the answer is yes.

But Cristina's feat has not made life easier for other women bullfighters, says Nuria. "You'd think Cristina was the only one. OK, she proved it can be done. But she does us no favours. We should unite as we're such a minority, to open the doors. But she refuses to share the bill with another woman, she's the star - until someone supplants her."

The season is in full swing, and Nuria's diary is filling up nicely. She has 12 bookings so far, her best tally to date. Slowly but surely, she reckons, she is realising her ambition to become a matador de toros, when, for the first time she will start fighting "with horses". This doesn't mean that she rides into the ring, but that she faces the bigger, more powerful beasts which must first be lanced in the neck by the picadores, riders on padded horses, before she confronts them with her scarlet cape and long curved sword.

Nuria studied at a bullfighting school on Madrid's scrubby western rim. The school occupies a patch of wasteland between the funfair, the zoo and a prostitutes' district. In the tinny bullring, the afternoon is heavy with the scent of wild jasmine, and faint shrieks from the rollercoasters waft across the silence of 30 respectful students, including three young women.

Maestro Carlos Neila is teaching the class how to lunge forward, then tiptoe backwards. Exasperated, he swishes his sword. "Watch the aesthetic. It has to look beautiful. Head up, chest out. You don't have to do this if you don't want to, you know. That's what the school is for, to see if it suits you or not. Otherwise go and study, or get a job, get a girlfriend ..."

At the end of a gruelling 90 minutes, the teenagers pair off for toreo del salon: one holds a pair of horns and imitates the bull, while the other stretches and pirouettes their slender body, twirls their cape. The boys play their roles with gusto, grunting and strutting. The three girls hang back, exhausted, then eventually join in without the boys' blazing conviction. They do not, as the boys do, transport themselves into another world.

Nicolas Varon, who manages the school, is a tough old boy of 63 with a drooping eye. How does he choose his pupils? "It's an aesthetic thing, a question of experience and instinct. It's like choosing a beauty queen or casting for the theatre." A youngster with his kitbag over his shoulder leans in and asks if he can practise soon with a real calf. "Yes, when you're ready, we'll let you know," says Don Nicolas. "Will it be soon?" the boy persists. "We'll tell you. You're on the list." Overcome with emotion, the boy ducks out.

Don Nicolas reckons that one or two in 500 will make it. Does he see any future matadors among current pupils? "I just don't know. If I knew, I'd take charge of them immediately. If I knew which lottery number was coming up, I'd buy it."

When I visited the school's passing-out ceremony last year, the girls looked sturdier, less vulnerable than the boys. They strode about, flirting and glancing like youngsters out for the night in the Plaza del Sol. They were older, more knowing and more poised. But they lacked the burning passion of the boys. While the girls smiled, the boys were sombre, their lean jaws set, their eyes dark, their adolescent limbs taut with the desire to prove themselves. For them, Hemingway's macho caricature is a blazing ideal.

Of the clutch of girls, one, Lourdes, 20, estranged from her family, has since dropped out of bullfighting. When I telephoned the flat where she had lodged, they told me she'd moved and was now working in a bar. Blonde pretty Ana, 18, who studies part time, whose mum turned up for a school corrida resplendent in black devore velvet, is still in the bottom group after three years. Only shy, stocky Beatriz, 18, who works in a nursery school in the mornings, has moved up into the more advanced group after four years. No new girls entered this year.

Nuria spent five years at the school. She knew at 15 it was what she wanted, and at 17, when she'd finished her training in technical drawing ("which I hated"), she signed up. Why did she want to be a bullfighter?

"It's such a beautiful world. It gives you more pain than good moments but once you're inside that world you realise it's really worth it. When you get into the ring you transform yourself totally and become a different person. It's like stepping on to the stage, before all the people. I try to kill well and quickly, so that the animal doesn't suffer, because you develop a sort of affection for it in the end, and so the crowd goes home happy."

Back in the bullring at Navaluenga that grey and gusty afternoon, Nuria performs elegantly, with only a couple of nasty tumbles before she moves in neatly for the kill. But the real spectacle is provided by two skinny young boys. One of them executes three beautiful passes then gets thumped, tossed and trampled underhoof. Trembling with terror, and befuddled by all the contradictory advice flung from the terraces, he returns time and time again until the animal is finally butchered and he totters away.

The other, Rafael Diaz, a diminutive and angelic 13-year-old who has been fighting since he was nine, gives a reckless virtuoso performance that earns him two ears and the tail. (As is customary, these have been cut from the dead beast and handed to him in recognition of his prowess.) Strutting proudly, he brandishes these aloft and scoops up the bouquets hurled from the terraces, before being carried shoulder-high through the main gate, where gangs of pre-pubescent girls mob him for autographs.

Does Nuria never feel a bit, well, mature amidst this fearsome young talent? No, she replies, there are novilleros of all ages. And very few young people are mature enough to know what they really want.

Nuria lives at home in Getafe, a respectable working-class suburb of Madrid, where her father Fernando is a mechanic at an aeronautics factory. He is a solid, unpushy man, deeply proud of his daughter. "Let me show you her traje de luces." He turns down the volume of the gigantic television set, goes next door, and returns with a coathanger shrouded with a silken cover. He peels it back to reveal a gorgeous apricot silk jacket, waistcoat and trousers studded with tiny beads, crystals and sequins, hand-stitched. "Feel it," he says. "It weighs 10 kilos."

Family backing is crucial, Nuria says. "If my father didn't support me ... " she leaves the sentence unfinished. "They always come with me to the corrida." She shows me her first tail, with its tassel of stiff russet curls. She strokes it ("Smell it. I washed it"), and it exudes the pungent essence of hot field. "Usually I keep the first ear of each season, but the ear I won at Navaluenga the other day was infested with ticks. I had to chuck it away."

Nuria's bedroom reveals a surprisingly adolescent streak, all Mickey Mouse-patterned flounces, fluffy animals and pastel-coloured figurines that would be cringingly embarrassing for most 15-year-olds. And when I ask casually about boyfriends, she passionately declares unrequited love for a Spanish rock star whose portrait adorns her walls. "I met him and I gave him my phone number and everything. But he never calls."

She concludes: "Of course it's a very machista world. But there've always been women bullfighters. It's just as difficult to become a bullfighter if you're a man or a woman. The animal doesn't know the sex of the person it faces. It's the only thing I want to do"

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
The giant banner displayed by Legia Warsaw supporters last night
football Polish side was ejected from Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
Life and Style
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Java Developer - 1 year contract

    £350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

    Junior Analyst - Graduate - 6 Month fixed term contract

    £17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

    SAS Business Analyst - Credit Risk - Retail Banking

    £450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Business Analyst, London, Banking, Credit Ris...

    Project Manager - Pensions

    £32000 - £38000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone