The Boy Bullfighters of France

Dec 04, 2013 at 3:45 PM ET

American boys obsessed with sports idolize big-name football, basketball and baseball players. And maybe the occasional hockey player. Or sometimes their parents push them into a country club sport that will boost their chances of landing a place in the Ivy League. A few rebel and get good at some made-up X-Games competition. Others just get tubby eating junk food watching sports with their dad.

But not in the southern regions of France. No, in these areas that border Spain, bullfighting is the Thing To Do. Young men aspire to don the tight-fitting power suits of the storied matadors, the stuff of legends, Hemingway novels and that one Madonna video.

Just a few weeks ago, hundreds of animal rights activists attempted to protest a bullfight in the south of France. The police forcefully cleared off the protestors—who had been attempting to block the entrance and prevent spectators from entering—and the fight went on.

Photographer Jean-Paul Pelissier followed two boys, Solal, 12, and Nimo, 10, and documented their dedication to the art of bullfighting. The social and legal chaos that surrounds them in the ongoing debate over the humanity of this sport has diminished the sheer awesomeness of wielding a sword at a raging beast and living to tell about it.

This is Nino—nicknamed El Nino—because he rains down the pain on bulls. Actually he doesn’t, since his apprenticeship at the French Tauromachy Centre only uses calves, and they aren’t harmed. In the last 30 years, the school has trained about 1,000 kids in bullfighting, and 20 of them have succeeded as professionals in the arena. The adorable and badass 10-year-old aspiring toreador (different from matador, because toreadors don’t kill bulls) has already been taking courses for a year. The Spanish terms for the sport are also used in the south of France.

Twice a week, El Nino practices the movements without a live animal, but in the spring, he will get to train with baby bulls.

El Nino practices his patented snout-slam move on this fake bull.

Other toreador apprentices practice the muleta pass with a fake bull.

Have you ever seen a more dashing young man? Solal, or Solalito, dons the uniform of the bullfighter before a beginner fight at the 12-year-old boy’s home in Nimes. The beginner or practice bullfight with a calf, where the animal leaves unharmed, is called a becerrada. In the States, it’s called preparing veal.

Solal is extremely dedicated—other 12-year-old boys might be play video games or sneak a copy of their dad’s Playboy, but this young man spends his nights reading about the latest toreador news and adventures.

Of course, these are still kids, and they still get to play. Both Solalito and El Nino chase this puppy. Now boys, keep in mind that harming pets could be a sign of a serial-killer-in-training. Just saying.

Who’s the man? El Nino, that’s who! The practice and play pays off—El Nino paralyzes this calf with his penetrating stare at the bullring of Bouillargues.

Did we say El Nino’s the man? El Nino wishes that in two years he may be more like his friend Solalito, executing this perfect muleta pass. This animal, however, doesn’t seem that impressed.

Can you help a bullfighter bro out? The students take part in all facets of the school, and dressing for success is key. Here, Solalito (right) gives Tomas a hand with his outfit.

Like calves to the slaughter. No, wait, we’re just kidding. These mini beasts were not harmed. Solal and another aspiring matador—sorry, toreador—check out their bovine opponents while dominating these other two guys nearby in the fashion department. Who wears a hoodie to a bullfight?

Take a bow: The young toreadors salute their audience.