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I came into the rodeo from the back door, skirting the stables and walking up the staircase past the dressing rooms where a sign read, "Please scrape your feet." I'd rescued an old straw cowboy hat with a sprig of sage in the brim that makes me look a little more weathered than I am, but my Nikes were still far from achieving scrape-worthy status.
If you look past the pageantry of the opening number, when cowboys, Indians, trick riders and folkloric dancers parade into the dirt-filled arena for the anthems of the Americas, the sixth annual Mexican Rodeo Extravaganza looks like an intense evening of death-defying feats by Old West daredevils from south of the border.
The atmosphere bristles with electricity and anticipation in the holding pens, where the bareback riders prepare to bust out of the gates hanging onto the back of an ornery bronco, like the original crash-test dummies. The contortions of a bronc-buster, trying to hang on for eight seconds -- and then get off safely -- are boggling, pushing the limits of human flexibility as his legs fly high into the air above his head before crashing back down around the shoulders of his thrashing stallion.
But the rodeo isn't all fun and games. I learned something, too. Where else could I have found a working demonstration of the lost art of horse slalom? Staci Anderson-Diaz illuminated the audience on the ways of Native American horse culture, clad in buckskin and riding a horse called Dakota Warrior. Not only did Diaz slalom through a maze of costumed Indians on their own horses, but she even demonstrated traditional horse dancing, taking Dakota Warrior through a two-step before answering the call to a battle march.
Once you realize that you're at a theatrical event, the whole kit and caboodle of the rodeo is more entertaining. Over the course of the evening, the troupe appealed to our appetite for sex, violence and -- when the clowns hid in a barrel to dodge the charging bull -- rock 'n' roll. You have to go to the parking lot for the drugs.
But who among us can resist the lure of a side-saddle riding team or the dazzling artistry of John Payne, the One-armed Bandit, whose horse answers to the crack of a bullwhip and whose cowdogs rounded up a handful of longhorn steer and guided them up on top of the Bandit's trailer? Anybody holding out that far into the show would have to give it up when Nydia Rojas, the Mexican Sweetheart and singing cowgirl, enticed her audience into joining her in a refrain of "Viva Mexico!" while her mount pranced beneath her.
When the singing trick riders come out, you know you've come to the dead end of some strange gamut. How did horse-craft ever evolve into this surreality? But the attentive audience, a more wholesome bunch than most would admit to, are dedicated rodeo-heads, more enthralled than the freak-seekers at the circus. When the stock show comes to town, it's as though a dinner bell's been rung within earshot of every household with a bedside Stetson and his 'n' her bow-legged boots lined up and waiting for that Saturday-night polishing. The rodeo is a point on an equilateral triangle -- completing a triumvirate of cruel and unusual punishment -- with figure-skating exhibitions and professional wrestling. Weird worlds, but someone's gotta live there.
The show nears its peak when Jerry Diaz takes the stage for more horse dancing and rope tricks. Diaz introduces us to his beautiful horse, his beautiful brother and another beautiful horse, telling the audience that riding this horse reminds him of dancing with his beautiful wife. She doesn't get top billing, but they've only been married three months, compared to 16 years of straddling his steed.
It's not enough to simply learn a few steps; Diaz's horses dance to the beat of the mariachi band playing from a platform in the arena. And it's hard work, this trick-dancing, as any front-row fan lucky enough to catch a face full of drool from a horse's head jerking -- back and forth, up and down with the dance moves -- can tell you.
When Diaz moves to the rope-trick portion of his act, we're told by the announcer that his rope is made from a rare desert cactus. The cactus is also used to make tequila, "but the tequila was never as smooth as the rope at the end of Jerry's arm." Diaz starts slow with tricks like standing in his saddle on one leg and twirling a lasso around himself, but he builds up to a grand finale with a 65-foot lasso circling himself and his wife and both of their horses as they ride around the arena in the spotlight. I'd like to see them do that in The Will Rogers Follies.
When you get right down to it, nothing says funny like rodeo clowns taunting an already mad bull. Little buckaroos in the audience joined in peels of laughter with full-grown adults as a raging bull was antagonized from behind by a daring clown, trying to steer the bull's fury toward the clown in the barrel. Wholesome fun for the whole family.
Backstage, after the show, the groupies come down to meet the cabelleros and maybe score a peck on the lips from their dream horse. Young girls and starry-eyed women overcome the laws of gravity to seat themselves upright in a saddle. One wide-hipped, high-heeled, leather-clad urban cowgirl in her mid-20s is hoisted and propped up into the saddle with the help of four riders trying to keep her from the horizontal position she seems inclined toward.
Young kids, the children of the rodeo riders, practice spinning rope in the corners of the stables, gearing up for the inevitable day when Jerry Diaz won't be able to ride into the ring and someone will remember: "Hey, that Juarez kid's been twirling a mean lasso back by the hay wagon!"
For now, Jerry Diaz ain't going nowhere. He stays backstage, greeting all the well-wishers and introducing his "beautiful" horse to all comers. His wife Staci stands beside him throughout, looking bored and patient, but only so patient, like a hot-shot banjo picker outgrowing the fiddle band.
Upstairs in the halls of concessionaires, mostly packing up their hats and boots, jewelry and accessories, a few diehards remain. A two-and-a-half-foot kid is too young to know to beam as his father hitches on his first six-shooter. I push my hat down on my head, preparing for the wintry wind of downtown Denver and remember to scrape the Old West off my Nikes before leaving the rodeo's dust in my tracks.[p]
Livestock shows and sales, horse shows, rodeos, bull riding, cutting-horse contests, children's ranchland, specialty acts and more
Denver Coliseum, Brighton and Humboldt, Denver
Tickets $10-$17. Call 303/295-6124 for tickets and info.