You stand alone at the center of the plaza de toros, your boots planted firmly in the yellow dust. The roar of the crowd fills your ears. The capote—cape—is heavy in your hand. Across the ring a dark apparition shimmers in the midday heat. Then all at once there is a pounding of hooves, the shape shifts and grows, and you brace to meet the beast hurtling toward you.
Bullfighting, or tauromaquia, is perhaps the ultimate test of manhood. It is also a sport practiced by many amateurs worldwide, known as aficionado practicos. For those who think they've got what it takes to put down their Hemingway and test their mettle in the ring, a good place to start is the California Academy of Tauromaquia, near San Diego.
The school is run by Coleman Cooney, an American who fell in love with bullfighting during an eight-year stay in Madrid. At the ranches surrounding the city, Cooney soaked up bullfighting culture. He learned about the tienta, an event at which the young bulls and breeding cows are tested for aggression—and where aficionado practicos get the chance to show their stuff against a real animal. Here he also began his study of toreo de salon, the highly choreographed regimen of solo movements a would-be matador must learn before going anywhere near a bull.
The academy caters to American students with no prior exposure to the craft or culture of tauromaquia. "The traditional method of training a young Spanish matador," Cooney says, "is not the same approach you'd take with a 30-year-old from Manhattan." The program, grounded in toreo de salon, also includes drills in which instructors play the part of the bull with a pair of hand-held horns. Students examine videos for technique and receive an introduction to bullfighting history and culture. The program culminates with the student facing off against a young animal at a tienta.
In addition to ongoing classes in San Diego, the academy offers an intensive weeklong program held on a bull ranch in Mexico, and one in Spain. The latter program, held in Salamanca, includes a stay at a three-star hotel, visits to local festivals and a stop at the tailor shop that dresses the real matadors—so you can look the part when you finally step into the ring.