Woman fights machismo by taking the bull by the horns: Cristina Sanchez has made history as a 'torero', writes Phil Davison from Toledo

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CRISTINA SANCHEZ looks the sort of Spanish woman you might see dancing Saturday night away in a Madrid discotheque. On Saturday evening in the historic city of Toledo, for many the heart and soul of Spain, she took part in what she likes to call 'a dance between a human and a noble animal'. In the end, she made history, aged 21, by becoming the first woman to fight and kill six bulls in succession in a single corrida.

Although still a novillera, or junior torero fighting novillos (young bulls), Ms Sanchez demonstrated enough skill and artistry, not to mention bravery, to win two ears. That allowed her to enjoy the ultimate accolade, the right to 'leave through the big door', carried on shoulders to the applause of a small but appreciative crowd.

Small, because Ms Sanchez has to fight far more than just bulls. She has been gored twice, an eight-inch gash in her right thigh and a horn through the abdomen that kept her in bed for six weeks. What might wound a weaker person more deeply than those horns, however, is the traditional machismo of her native land and the resentment of those who believe bull-fighting should remain a male domain.

Appreciative, because she had demonstrated even to many male sceptics that she can run rings around three-year bulls, even on her knees, and indicated she may soon be ready to tomar la alternativa - graduate as a fully-qualified matador of four- or five-year-old bulls weighing up to 600kg (1,300lbs). 'My ambition is to graduate to the big rings and fight alongside the great names, perhaps next year,' Ms Sanchez, tired but beaming, said after the corrida.

From the strutting torero, in a mainly mauve traje de luces (suit of lights), her hair wound in a pigtail, who had knelt defiantly in front of one bull, throwing aside the muleta, and running her finger along the horn of another, she had turned into a quiet-spoken, down-to-earth woman in T-shirt, blue jeans and Dr Scholl sandals who said the only boyfriends she had time for now were 'los toros'.

In the ring, she had the gestures down to a fine art. The head thrown back, the free hand held high, the ballet-like steps, the defiant eye contact with her 'partner in the dance'. Some might have noted that the tricky paso de pecho that brings the bull's horns thrusting up past the torero's chest, presented more difficulties to her than to her male counterparts. But, in Toledo on Saturday, not even the drunkest spectator dared risk a sexist comment amid an admiring crowd.

She knelt before a confused but far from finished bull, threw open her chaleco (jacket) and thrust back her head, as if to demonstrate to anyone in doubt that she was not only a torero but, as she likes to call herself instead of using simply the feminine ending, a mujer torero (woman torero).

The female torero has a male valet. Emilio, her mozo de espadas (sword boy), takes almost an hour to dress her in the traditional suit of lights.

Her greatest problem, Ms Sanchez said later, was delivering 'the supreme fate', the kill. 'Had I had more success with the espada (the sword), I think I would have won more ears. I pricked too much and was off with my aim. I'll have to practise on the carro' - a horned cart used for training, with a hole where the sword should be plunged.

Short of accuracy with the espada, she also had problems delivering the coup de grace with the tizona, the dagger sometimes needed to finish the job.

Was she perhaps lacking the killer instinct, or simply the strength? 'Not at all. I've killed many. If you didn't have the strength, you wouldn't have the strength to wield the muleta (the scarlet cloth and stick used in the final stages) or the cape, which are both much heavier than the sword.'

Most matadors, even if tall, are indeed slim and often fragile. Ms Sanchez looked stocky alongside 21-year-old Julian Zamora, a diminutive matador de toros who, somewhat sceptically, came along to watch.

Vets checked the evening's bulls before the fight, to ensure their horns had not been shaved - or at least not excessively so: it is an open secret that this is now the norm. Mr Zamora said the public found it strange to see a woman fighting bulls: 'It does bother me a bit.' He added: 'The thing is, she gets all the attention.'

'Some (toreros) treat me OK,' Ms Sanchez said later. 'Others refuse to fight on the same bill. Maybe they can't handle the fact that a woman might prove better than they are.'

Spain's best-known bullfighting writer, Joaquin Vidal of El Pais, thinks Ms Sanchez has a chance of making the big time. 'She fights well, she has the calling and she is full of valour,' he said. 'Her major defect is in the kill. It's the most difficult part.'

There have been a handful of female bull-fighters in the past. Perhaps the most famous was Juanita de la Cruz, who fought before the Civil War and who eventually graduated to the senior level in South America as a result of the political turmoil at home. General Francisco Franco later banned women from bull- fighting - indeed from almost everything outside the home - a ruling that lasted until 1974, a year before his death.

Since then, no woman has made it to the top level. The best, in the 1980s, was Maribel Atienzar, who reached Madrid's renowned Las Ventas ring but remained a novillera.

It took El Greco years to make his name in Toledo. It took Cristina Sanchez, who like many Spaniards considers bull-fighting an art, 135 minutes. But she still has some way to go, and many a horn to avoid, on the road to immortality.

(Photograph omitted)