Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor.
– Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

John and Carol Dudzik have learned that one doesn’t bring up “tauromachy” in polite conversation.

“There’s no in-between reaction,” says John, who saw his first bullfight in Cadiz, Spain in 1958 during a tour in the Navy. People are either fascinated or appalled.

Carol Dudzik, a longtime principal at Lincoln Elementary School in Oak Park, started her career as a Spanish teacher. On a trip to Spain with other teachers in 1968, she decided to attend a bullfight because she wanted to better understand the culture she was teaching. The featured matador that day was El Cordobes, aka the Beatnik of the Bullring (he fought the bull in blue jeans). She was hooked.

John and Carol Dudzik were bullfight fans even before they met.

For 10 years, beginning in 1983, they attended the Fiesta de San Fermin in Pamplona, made famous in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. It took John a few visits, but eventually he got up the nerve and started “running with the bulls.” He’s done it 32 times and lived to tell the tale.

“We’re bull people,” he says.

They’re also members of Club Taurino de Chicago, a collection of 50 or so bullfighting aficionados in the Chicago area who meet monthly to watch videos, hear presentations and generally share their mutual enthusiasm.

Others in the group are Oak Parkers John and Linda Tibensky and River Forester Anibal Pepper (pronounced ah-NEE-bahl).

Each year, Club Taurino is among several co-sponsors of Jornadas Taurinas Norteamericanas, a visit to New York City and Chicago by prominent figures in the world of tauromachia. For the second year, La Majada restaurant in Oak Park recently hosted a Sunday afternoon Toreo de Salon, a demonstration of bullfighting technique.

Last year, the guest torero was Victor Mendes of Portugal. This year, they welcomed José Pedro Prados Martin, also known as El Fundi.

“They all have nicknames,” notes John Dudzik.

And the more prominent matadors go by another title: Maestro. The top practitioners earn up to $250,000 for an afternoon’s work – fighting three bulls.

Maestro Fundi built his reputation in Spain. His first time alone in the ring was at the age of 13. Over the last 22 years, he has become famous for fighting duros, the toughest bulls.

Americans tend to think bullfighting is a rigged spectacle, observes Carol, similar to our own professional wrestling circuit. Yet that’s not the case, she says, pointing out that the bulls are bred to fight. There are two kinds, duros and commercial. The commercial bulls aren’t tame, but they’re more predictable. Duros are more dangerous and the top matadors put themselves in harm’s way when they fight. El Fundi was gored seven times just this past year (cornadas, or horn wounds).

An art form

It’s the danger, in fact, that raises this “sport” to the level of art.

“Bullfighting in Mexico and Spain is covered in the arts section of the newspaper, not the sports section,” says Carol.

Tauromachy as an art form, of course, is not exactly a politically correct notion. Many are repulsed by the bloodletting and killing. Every bull fights just once. This is what they are bred for. When they’re done, they’re done, except in rare cases where a bull is such a “noble” opponent that the judges may grant an indulto, sparing his life (for further breeding).

But it’s the beauty of the proceedings, mixed with the danger, that raises this spectacle to the level of art for aficionados. Rules have been in place for more than 200 years, though they vary from ring to ring. All fights consist of three acts, each of which lasts a prescribed number of minutes. Act 1 involves the picadors on horseback and the matador conducting passes, veronicas, with a large heavy cape, or capote. In Act 2, banderillas, three pairs of brightly colored lances, are plunged into the shoulders of the bull. Respect for El Fundi is greater because he is also a banderillero. He places his own lances, and does so while standing within the bull’s horn spread, then pivoting out of harm’s way at the last moment. The final act, the faena includes more capework, this time with the smaller flannel muleta, as the matador attempts to dominate the bull while showing choreographed flourish with each pass, bringing the animal closer to the “moment of truth,” when the sword comes down for the kill.

It’s a performance, Carol says, a three-act play about life and death. If the animal is killed too early or too late, the torero is disgraced. The level of danger rises as the bull catches on that it’s not the cape he should be chasing, but the man holding it. When the bull achieves sentivo, the crowd senses it and cries out, “Matalo!”

The top toreros connect with the audience to the point where you feel you’re collectively breathing with the matador, Carol says. They call it “transmission.”

“It takes the audience’s breath away.”

The quicker the death, the better. But the bull must die by the 13-minute mark or the fight is over. Judges award one or both of the ears, based on the quality of the performance. The top honor is the tail. A surviving bull is still slaughtered later (unless granted an indulto) because he has been “educated.” He knows too much to fight again.

Dr. Pepper

Anibal Pepper attended his first fiesta brava at the age of 10 in Arequipa, Peru, where he grew up. His grandfather, who emigrated from Spain, brought him along. Anibal was impressed, but he didn’t become a real fan until he finished medical school and landed his first job as an assistant surgeon at the Plaza de Toros in Arequipa (and later in Lima). In Latin America and Spain, medical students get training in bullfighting wounds because of the popularity of the sport.

“I enjoy the music, the pageantry, the tradition. Everything is done just so. There’s a lot of flamenco and a lot of danger. It’s like the circus in this country,” he says.

But he understands people’s ambivalence about it.

“I have mixed feelings,” he says. “It’s not a wonderful thing that they do to the bull. I enjoy the corrida, but it’s not a high priority in my life. I’m kind of torn.”

A few years back during a trip to Spain, he attended a bullfight and beforehand introduced himself to the ring’s surgeon, who invited him to watch the match with him. No one was gored that day, but they did attend to an American tourist who had fainted, apparently overcome by the bloodletting. Dr. Pepper (yes, he’s heard the jokes) did the translating, and the first thing he found out about the woman was that she came from Oak Park.

Pepper, who has plenty of experience dealing with trauma (he served in a MASH unit in Vietnam and was chief of surgery at Westlake Hospital, now semi-retired), is planning to go to Haiti next week to help with the relief effort.

Demonstrating technique

He and his wife, Ann (who is not a fan), attended the Toreo de Salon at La Majada on Jan. 17, where El Fundi demonstrated many of the stylish veronicas, while Arturo, one of the club’s members, held a set of horns and impersonated the bull’s movements.

The movements were performed in slow motion, but the maestro’s level of concentration was impressive. Presenting himself to the virtual bull, he waved the heavy, colorful capote and emitted deep guttural grunts from his diaphragm to summon the charge. It’s not enough to survive. You have to dominate the beast and do it with style, without avoiding the danger. At one point, he instructed Arturo to become more unpredictable, and the two performed an intricate dance that lasted a good 4-5 minutes, to the delight of the 30 or so in attendance. At the end, Pepper suggested they grant Arturo an indulto.

The afternoon’s host, Jesse Haggar, owner of La Majada, has his own long history with the corrida. He performed as a novillero in his village of Torreon, Mexico, as a teenager. He tried to produce his own corrida with a few friends, but found it too expensive, so he transferred his passion to soccer, where he eventually played professionally in Mexico. He later promoted corridas near Monterrey.

Beats golf

The Dudziks are both retired now, which gives them time to indulge their passion. They traveled to Feria de Cali in Colombia the week after Christmas and are currently in Mexico City for the annual Anniversario of the Plaza de Toros there, where crowds of more than 50,000 pack the stands. Then each summer, they attend a feria in Spain. They estimate they’ve been to more than 400 bullfights.

There are bullfights in the U.S., John says, in California and Texas, but it’s against the law to kill the bull – a nicety, at best, since the bull is slaughtered later anyway.

John says Club Taurino has tried to foster a connection with the Hemingway Foundation in Oak Park because of Ernie’s avid interest, but found the organization much more interested in scholarship than tauromachy.

So how did a guy who grew up on the South Side of Chicago manage to become a bullfighting aficionado?

John Dudzik shrugs and replies, “I never got interested in golf.”

Join the discussion on social media!