Bulls and Ballet
We took our seats on the dusty concrete bleachers, dead center from the opening gates where the bull escapes. Despite the line of onlookers that circled around the building: the wide, round stadium echoed with emptiness. A few steps from us, empanadas and french-fries sizzled in fresh grease. The steam rose to pool beneath the rainbow striped umbrella that mimicked a beach ball. A young girl tugging her toddler behind her, trotted in front of us waving around plastic squares in Easter colors. Rain ponchos for $1. We looked up to looming gray clouds quickly stealing away the brilliant afternoon sunshine.
A few more people trickled in. Families with young kids, grandmothers in wheelchairs, Andean cowboys in full attire, and far too many men dangling half empty beer bottles. And one delightful young lady, a splash of vibrant color against the faded red paint of the bull ring enclosure. My eyes were on her, as were the eyes of everyone around. Most of the onlookers knew who she was, but I was in total oblivion. Her sparkling, traditional attire seemed out of place to me. A white crocheted top and billowing skirts didn’t immediately seem like they belonged at an event similar to a rodeo.
Our daughter was intrigued as well, and gave me reports of her entering and exiting, as I sat next to her fiddling with my camera. Finally, she disappeared for good and we didn’t give it any further thought. The crowd had filled in a bit, but not quite how I had expected. Still, the other patrons were fascinating and we were content watching the antics of all sorts of interesting characters. A few young kids dangled themselves above the entrance gate, as if they were the bait for the bull we were anticipating. A fancier group filled in a covered section of the bleachers. Many of them wore fedoras and carried red roses in the front pockets of their fancy lapels. Apparently, these were the booth seats, chairs that cost a few bucks more. But, I couldn’t help but wonder if they arrived at the wrong venue.
Vendors continued to infiltrate the arena, poking their way past our feet as they flapped around all sorts of things for sale. Toys and umbrellas, cotton candy, jello, cooked beans, candy and plastic tops. A man in fancy chaps and pressed white shirt entered the ring on a stunning brown horse. But, they only entered a few steps and then backed out again. This repeated several times before he retreated. And at last, a hint that the show might begin. A trumpeting sort of music and a rumble through the crowd.
A brilliant white horse and a handsome young rider galloped to the center, and took a loop around. The rider wore a cream-colored fedora that matched his alpaca chaps and a heavy chocolate poncho that glided behind him as he made his rounds. He tipped his hat at each section of the crowd before returning to the middle and striking a pose, elegantly frozen in time. The length of the pause was calculated exactly, ending seconds before the onlookers began to stir. The music took an upbeat and in pranced the doll of a girl we had glanced earlier.
Her feet pranced around, creating a cloud of dust beneath the colorful skirts and up to her beaming cheeks. After a little solo dance, she was greeted by the boy on the horse. Just when he seemed like he might hop down and join her, the horse began to dance. Like nothing I have ever seen before. The rider all but disappeared, as the girl and the horse embarked on the courtship dance of all courtship dances. The horse pranced and bowed, even kneeling before her. His white mane floating through the air in perfect rhythm with her swirling skirts. It was the best ballet one could have ever imagine, right there in the center of a dusty bull ring.
The performance was completely captivating and had the entire crowd entranced. Without a single word spoken, the couple and the horse told a story comparable to the best fairytales we all know. Romance and chivalry, hope and mystery, music and dance. And then the show ended leaving the arena blanketed in a mood I hadn’t expected to engulf us in a bull ring.
But, this was just the precursor, not the main event all. Quickly, I remembered what we were here to see. Having second thoughts on witnessing brutality after romance, I asked my husband to confirm for me: would we be seeing a bull getting killed? Apparently, my thoughts were not alone and my anxieties were right on que. My husband told me the crowd had been caught in a cloud of murmurs, discussing my very concerns. With the right information, I settled my nervous feet. There would be no blood shed here today.
The city of Cayambe had recently passed an ordinance by public vote, to cease the practice that leads to the death of the bull. In fact, most of Ecuador has since made a similar decision. Today, there are only two places in the country where the traditional bull fighting ‘til death is still legally allowed. With the news, our fascination grew. We were excited to witness whatever the new practice would include. Thrilled to understand that this culture has found a way to preserve an ancient way of life while recognizing the concerns of a more modern society.
Anticipations grew with the rumblings of the crowd. And as usual, the delay to the main event was much longer than it should be. But, finally, we were signaled by a row of men entering the ring prepared with all of their appropriate attire. Riding boots and moletas, and their own sort of uniforms. The bullfighters took their positions, and the arena anxiously waited for the first big bull. Finally, we heard the hooves clamoring for the gate and the wood came swinging open.
The audience was first stunned to silence and then erupted into a roaring fit of laughter. The bull was scarcely bigger than a calf. But, then, so was the bullfighter. After the cackles subsided, the rumors floated through the stands and trickled back to us. The first round of fighters were a set of juniors, kids marked as rookies in learning the art of bullfighting. Therefore, it seemed fair enough that the little men were paired with little bulls. With the new information, the show was rather fascinating. Understanding that this group of youngsters had practiced in earnest to be awarded a slot in the show. And for a practice that is quickly disappearing, it is always encouraging to see youngsters fighting to preserve their heritage.
After the kids had completed, the crowd came to their feet and threw out their roses and fedoras onto the dusty ring. It was mock celebration of sorts, to boost the egos of the emerging bullfighters. Of course, the fighters were instantly embarrassed by the clapping and antics…as most of the ruckus came from their own sister and mothers!
Soon after, the ring was occupied by a man on a horse and a larger bull. This was more of an official event and the mood was a bit more somber. Prior to the no-kill rules, this activity would be marked by an ending that resulted in either the death of the bull or the death of the horse, possibly even both. Thankfully in this case, the rider did not carry a true sword and the bull’s horns had the tips removed to prevent puncture to the horse. The sword was marked with chalk, and the rider would aim at the bull to leave the mark that would signify a wound. The bull did occasionally connect with the horse, aiming for painted X’s that would indicate a kill shot.
Incredibly, the “Fake kill” did not seem to dampen the spirit of the sport. In fact, I’m sure much of the crowd was honestly relieved to not witness any sudden brutality to either of the majestic animals. Without the worry of such travesty, it was much easier to comprehend the details of the sport. Just like any sports, the event is full of details, rules, and practicalities. Although, without a commentator, we relied on the audience a bit for play by plays of the more complicated bits.
Our children enjoyed the festivities every bit as much as Carlos and I. They even whined when we decide to leave early to beat the exiting crowds. The experience was so much different than I expected, and I am constantly reminded of how much the media influenced my expectations. It was quite enjoyable and artistic, even respectable. I never imagined so much drama and artistry would be present. I feel lucky to have been given a viewpoint that allowed me to appreciate and understand the cultural significance.
From this opportunity, I know, that the art must be preserved. It would be a great tragedy to suffer the loss of such a beautiful past time. I am proud of the Ecuadorians, for finding a way to recognize the conflicts with modern society. And we are so pleased to have been a part of this ritual. What an accomplishment to have preserved a country’s heritage while being sensitive to the viewpoints of a more modern society.