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"

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