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Want to deal with the bull?

Escalon matador teaches techniques of being a bullfighter

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Want to deal with the bull?

Dennis Borba – the only active professional matador in the United States – shows off his “capote” at his Escalon ranch. Borba trained under matadors in Mexico, Peru, Spain and Portugal and now offe...

JASON CAMPBELL/The 209


POSTED June 23, 2012 1:58 a.m.

ESCALON – Dennis Borba is a busy man.

It’s to be expected when you run a thriving livestock business and serve as both an advisor and intermediary for the colorful and pageantry-filled Portuguese bullfights that take place throughout Northern California in the late spring.

Throw in the fact that you’re the only active, American-born matador on the planet – something that has turned his Escalon-based Campo Bravo arena into a destination for some of the biggest media outlets in the world – and you’re bound to fill your days up quickly.

Just minutes after loading a bull into the back of his trailer – something the massive, broad-shouldered beast wasn’t exactly fond of – his phone starts buzzing with text messages and phone calls asking for directions to the bullring in the small Merced County hamlet of Stevinson.

It’s a call he has to take. But it’s also a call that he wants to take.

Because when Dennis Borba talks bulls – the Tauromaquia, or the art of bullfighting – he’s in his element. He’s as comfortable talking about the ins-and-outs that go into the training as a prizefighter is when he climbs through the ropes.

It’s his arena. It’s just him, an animal with roots that trace back to the Iberian Peninsula and the years of accrued knowledge that allows him to gracefully dance with an animal that for all intents and purposes could snap him in half.

He wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Growing up as a kid my dad promoted bullfights and I knew that I either wanted to be a bull rider or a matador,” he said – the years he spent in Portuguese and Spanish speaking countries evident in a slight accent. “After high school I went to Mexico City to pursue the matador route and that ended up taking me all over the world.

“I got a chance to do what it was that I always wanted to do, and it’s something that becomes a part of you.”

On a given night during the summer, Borba can literally be anywhere.

Last week he performed at a private event on the shores of Flathead Lake in Montana – a gathering for young professionals and their families that appreciated the gallant display. He’s on the short list for a lot of Hollywood insiders that want accuracy to be maintained when bullfighting scenes are included in movies. That allows him to work with Willem Dafoe, stunt-double for Kiefer Sutherland and teach Jack White of The White Stripes how to look like a true matador.

And that’s not taking into account the realistic portrayals and stunt coordination work that he’s done – from helping Clive Owen look more like bullfight aficionado Ernest Hemingway in a recent HBO movie to keeping Johnny Knoxville and the rest of his Jackass crew alive in the opening “running of the bulls” scene of their second full-length feature movie.

But it all culminates on a warm summer evening when Borba ditches the ranch wear for his traje de luces – his “suit of lights” – which pay homage to the vibrant and colorful past of the art he chooses to practice and the rich tradition that goes along with it.

Swipe.

The bull moves towards his “capote” that’s draped out to the right of his body.

Swipe.

The bull moves to the left trying to capture the shimmering material.

At certain points he’ll only be inches away from the bull as it makes passes towards the colorful and heavy drape – the animal, colorblind, can only detect the motion that is made – and while it appears he may be taunting the bull at times, it’s actually more like a dance between two partners that share a sense of mutual respect.

In some instances this will be the last hurrah for the bull. Raised on the ranch for as long as four years before being introduced to an arena full of people, it only goes for the cape the first time out – eventually realizing that what it really wants is the shiny man that’s throwing it around.

Only the best are kept for breeding purposes while others are sent to either the slaughterhouse or sold off to rodeos.

For roughly 20 minutes, however, that animal got the chance, Borba says, to be a part of something magical.

“It’s truly an art and like any art you have to understand what it is that you’re working with,” he said. “You have to understand the bull and know how it thinks and that allows you to both put on a show that makes you happy and makes the crowd happy.

“It’s great to be a part of.”

It’s only fitting that Borba’s family is a big reason why the events themselves are still wildly popular with Portuguese Associations and even accepted under California’s rigorous animal cruelty laws.

In traditional Spanish-style bullfights, the bull is killed at the conclusion with a sword shot between its shoulder blades and into its heart. Only the crowd can pardon the bull, and trophies that are awarded to matadors that perform valiantly include the ears (two for exceptional bravery) and the tail.

That’s not the case in modern “bloodless bullfights” concocted by Borba’s father.

In order to keep the traditions alive in California’s Central Valley, the elder Borba came up with the idea of affixing a Velcro harness behind the bull’s withers that serves a sticking point for the banderillas – two-foot spear-like sticks – that pays homage to the style one would find in Spain while maintaining the Portuguese tradition of not killing the animal in front of spectators.

It’s that combination of innovation and a sense of one’s roots that makes Borba’s weekend-long seminars – taught on his Escalon ranch – so popular with thrill-seekers and actual bullfighting enthusiasts looking to get closer to the real thing.

“We get people that come from all over the country that want to be a part of that and see what its like,” Borba said. “It’s great to see that kind of interest. I like being able to share what I love with other people.”

JASON CAMPBELL

209 staff reporter

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