The death of Spanish bullfighting has been declared many times, but the number of bullfights in the country is at its highest level in seven years, and the young are the most consistent presence as older groups of spectators drop away.
In Madrid, Alvaro Alarcon plays out the moment when he will enter the Spanish capital’s Las Ventas bullring for his final challenge as a “novillero”, or apprentice bullfighter.
The 24-year-old has been training in the dusty countryside outside the city, and his skin-tight suit, delicately woven with beads and gold embroidery, is back from the tailor.
If he can triumph this last time, he will be considered for the highest rank of “matador” – bullfighters who take on beasts weighing more than half a ton.
“Being a bullfighter is a way of life.”
On a Sunday afternoon, Alarcon must kill two young bulls by driving a sword through their shoulder blades, puncturing the animals’ aortas.
He is cheered on by hundreds of children and teenagers among the 8,700 people who turn out to watch from the stands.
In an age of almost unlimited entertainment choices, it is a serious statement.
It is now firmly a minority interest.
Just under 2% of Spaniards attended a bullfight in the 2021-22 season, according to Culture Ministry statistics, but among them teenagers aged 15-19 were the largest group.
Those aged over 75 were the least likely to attend.
So far, the call has had little effect.
While bullfighting is nowhere close to drawing the crowds of half a century ago, it remains an important, if divisive, symbol of Spanish identity in the country’s south and central regions.
Audiences are smaller, fans argue, but more committed.
Miriam Cabas is a 21-year-old bullfighter from the southern Andalusia region, and one of just 250 women who are registered as professionals in Spain.
She has watched the profile of the crowds shift since she was a child in the stands.
“It is true that bullfighting has decreased,” she admitted.
“But right now, I perceive that the youth is booming and people are eager to know and go to the bullrings.”
But Alarcon grew up in a family that had no interest in bullfighting, with parents who were horrified when he wanted to join a school to learn the practice as a teenager.
“I loved motorbikes, and anything related to extreme sports,” he told The Associated Press.
“I had never even seen a bull until I watched a documentary about bullfighting aged 13, and discovered this beautiful profession.”
Beyond the bullfighters themselves, the industry employs thousands of ranchers, plus event organisers and promoters, and even bullfighting critics who still write up reports from the events in prestigious national newspapers.
“Alvaro Alarcon took two young bulls with fuel and momentum,” read a recent report in the El Pais daily, which noted that Alarcon was awarded an ear severed from a felled bull.
Africa Calderon Garcia, 20, is a seamstress for a Madrid tailor who crafts the intricate “traje de luces”, or suit of lights, that bullfighters wear into the ring.
She grew up attending bullfights with her grandmother and will continue the tradition, though she considers herself someone who cares deeply for animals.
“People are not aware of all the work that goes on behind it and how well cared for the animals are,” she added, citing a common argument among pro-bullfighting groups that the toro bravo breed lives a well-fed existence outdoors until they enter the bullring.
Young fans were outraged by the government’s attempt last year to exclude bullfighting from a 400-euro (£355) subsidy given to 18-year-olds to spend on cultural activities.
A legal case brought by a bullfighting association ended up in Spain’s Supreme Court, which found against the left-wing coalition currently governing the country.
The successful legal argument rested on the fact that bullfighting is protected as cultural patrimony in Spain by decades-old legislation passed to ensure its survival.
“While this law is in force, bullfighting will be protected in Spain, although it is legalised animal abuse,” said Yolanda Morales, spokeswoman for Spain’s Animalist Party, in a recent social media video.
But for Antonio Lopez Fuentes, a master tailor and Calderon Garcia’s boss, the government’s action was just the latest attempt to proscribe a practice that kings, popes and Moorish rulers have all tried to stamp out over the past thousand years.
“They (the young) think: ‘If you are trying to ban me from something, I am going to do it’,” he said.
The risks remain as high as they have ever been.
On Alarcon’s last night as a novillero, he was gored by a bull and left with three broken ribs.
Following surgery, he texted: “I’ll be back in the ring very soon.”