The young bullfighter tucks his chewing gum behind his teeth, glares along his sword, shakes a red cape and barks "Toro!" Flaring his nostrils and rising on to his toes, he lunges forward for the kill.

"Bloody hell, you forget so quickly," scolds his instructor and the "bull," a young boy wielding a wheelbarrowlike contraption with a huge pair of horns, takes a breather as the instructor yanks the sword from the "bull's" rubber back."Becoming a figure in bullfighting is almost a miracle," warns a large wooden sign in Madrid's Bullfighting School, where 114 teenagers wield capes and swords and dream of glory.

"Maybe one in 100 will make it," said teacher Agapito Garcia, who as "Serranito" was a matador for five years until a bull tossed him, partially paralyzing him, in 1969.

The 13-year-old pupil misses his mark twice more, the sword dangles limply from the bull's back. It should drive through the shoulder blades up to the hilt, piercing the animal's heart and bloodying the matador's hand.

Squinting against the low evening sun, Serranito summons another student to the kill.

Alvaro Nunez, a 12-year-old from the southern region of Cadiz, kills cleanly. He left home six months ago when the local bull school closed and came to Madrid to learn the secrets of Spain's national fiesta.

Alvaro recognized his vocation when he was just 7. His father, uncle and cousins are matadors or "banderilleros," whose speciality is sticking pairs of darts in the bull's back. "You are born with it inside you," he said. "Not just anyone can be a bullfighter you know."

The instructors, all former matadors addressed as "maestro," look for courage and dedication in their pupils, but above all "aficion" - simply a passion for bullfighting.

"When a lad comes here with his father, I ask them both one question: Who brought whom?" said Manuel Molinero, director of the school in the Casa de Campo park, which opened as a private venture in 1975 but has been run by the city council since 1982.

If the father is a frustrated matador who wants to live out his dreams through his son, both are shown the door. But if the son has pestered his father to enroll him, "then I know he has got the right spirit," Molinero said.

Machismo runs deep in the bullfighting fraternity, and professional female matadors like Mexico's Raquel Martinez are extremely rare, but the school has four female students.

Molinero said women lacked physical strength and tended to get fat, which looked bad in the tight-fitting "suit of lights." "But I'm a feminist, so I treat them equally," he said. "Bulls can't tell the difference, except with cows."

In a covered gym, 19-year-old Cristina Sanchez practices capework with a young man holding a pair of horns to his head. In tracksuit and pigtails, she swings the gold and scarlet "capote" like a dancer in slow motion as the bull rushes past.

"You don't really need a lot of strength to kill a bull," she argued. "It's not as if you had to punch it to death."

The students also practice capework on cows, but Cristina has already killed "novillos" (young bulls) and will soon fight in "novilladas" with a mounted "picador," whose job is to weaken the bulls with a lance.

When novices start to fight with a picador, they must leave the school and their next step is to take the "alternativa" - a "corrida" (bullfight) in tandem with an established matador - to gain full-blooded matador status.

Cristina's father is a banderillero, and she was weaned on bullfights. She knows she will have to struggle harder than her male peers for acceptance but thinks female matadors might make the art more graceful.

Maestro Juan Antonio Alcoba is teaching Cristina to vary her capework to keep the public interested. "They must have a spark of grace and art to make contact with the public."

Rafael Gonzalez, 18, graduates to fighting with picadors this year. In the winter he fought novillos in Colombia but an awkward kill stopped him winning an ear, the trophy awarded to bullfighters for a good fight.