It was like watching a fuse sputtering toward a box of dynamite.

In the bullring, a white stallion pranced in place and its mounted cavaleiro held in his right hand a ribboned yardstick ending in a barb. Facing them, a magnificent wild bull glared with fury and gathered himself to launch a charge that would surely splatter horse and rider against the barrier behind.

The tableau lasted five seconds. Then came the explosion. In a blur, horse and bull had switched places in the arena, the rider was empty-handed and the beribboned stick was hanging from the bull's humped shoulders. The crowd bellowed; the stout gentleman beside me waved his hat like a banner and screamed till the veins bulged on his temples.

Dazzled by the speed, I had seen nothing.

As the bull wheeled and chased the horse, its horns were kept inches away from drawing blood by the rein work of the cavaleiro, who slowed and speeded the horse to match the pace of the bull.

"You did not understand?" said my friend Manuel with gentle courtesy, for he had volunteered to initiate a naive foreigner into the mysteries of the Portuguese bullfight.

"The horse must not move first. He must wait for the bull to attack and then he must meet him halfway so that the rider can plant the banderilha in passing. And he must always pass by the right horn to give the rider's right hand a clean shot at the hump."

Instructed in what to watch for, on the second charge I saw the bull raise his tail -- a signal, Manuel told me, that he was launching his charge -- saw the horse attack the oncoming bull, saw the powerful stallion turn into a boneless lizard one millisecond before impact and slither in a flowing curve around the right horn to pass down the bull's right side, saw the rider lean and jab downward to plant the banderilha.

I was bellowing with the rest, electrified by the most explosive action I have witnessed in any spectacle. And the most graceful, short of classical ballet.

In fact, the whole show partakes of ballet, with its rigidly prescribed routines and orchestrated steps, its pageantry and costuming, its fantasy of resurrecting a fairy-tale age of chivalry that never was. And unlike the fatal sword stroke that ends the Spanish tragedy, an insignificant prick, hardly more painful to the bull than the spurring of a polo pony or the whipping of a race horse, is all the punishment the bull suffers in Portugal. Tradition and law forbid the killing of bulls for public amusement.

For an initiation into the Portuguese bullfight, I had chosen the last spectacle of the season and I had chosen well, for the sole cavaleiro was Joao Moura, today's greatest Portugese bullring rider and the equivalent for celebrity in Portugal of a combined Mikhail Baryshnikov and Muhammad Ali. So a sellout crowd packed into the quasi-Moorish bullring of Lisbon's Campo Pequeno, adorned with onion-dome minarets and crescents and painted an improbable puce.

As we thrust through the crowd milling about the entrance, Manuel insisted on renting pillows, for the seats are concrete slabs with little pity for the unprotected posterior. There are no back rests, and the seats are jammed together tighter than El Cheapo Airline's subtourist class, so that you sit between the knees of the chap behind you and cradle the head of the person in front between your knees. We spectators formed a gigantic three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle cunningly fitted into an apparently seamless block.

First, the white-costumed band paraded, pausing before the boxes of distinguished visitors to play a salute.

Then came a posse of chaps dressed much like the banderilleros of the Spanish bullring, according to Manuel. They are called the peoes de brega, or "laborers of deployment," he said. Their job is to work the bull with the cape for about a minute -- no more, for fear of wearing out his first beautiful fury -- so the cavaleiro can see if the bull has peculiarities of style he must guard against (a tendency to hook to the right instead of charging straight, for instance).

Then came gaudily costumed blokes called forcados amadores, whose insane contribution to the festivities Manuel wouldn't attempt to explain before the event. Even the sweepers who smooth the sand of the arena between encounters got into the act.

Everybody swaggered, the band blasted out the pasodoble (two-step), and when they were all lined up before the box of the Inteligente, the representative of the government agency that regulates bullfighting, in came Moura.

Riding a stunning white stallion with ribbons worked into plaited mane and tail, Moura made a brave sight in feathered tricorn hat, lace jabot, three-quarter-length coat, dun riding breeches and knee-length black boots. He minced around the ring in an exhibition of haute ecole dressage that would make Vienna's Lippizaner horses look clumsy. Stopping before the Inteligente, he removed his tricorn in salute and revealed that he was an extraordinarily handsome youth who looked barely old enough to apply for a driver's license. His immense popularity with at least half the Portuguese population was instantly explained.

Receiving from the Inteligente the signal to proceed with the show, Moura performed the impressive trick of backing his horse a good 75 feet out of the ring, looking graceful every inch of the way, though ordinary horses walk backward with the grace of a square-wheeled threshing machine.

The ring cleared, Moura returned. The senior peon ceremoniously carried to him a yard-long barbed dart, shook his hand and wished him luck. Moura posted himself across the arena from the door that admits the bull, and the nerve-twanging suspense began, the horse staring at the door, picking up hoofs nervously, apparently eager for the fray to begin.

At a trumpet call, the door swung open and a mountain of black ferocity rushed into the arena. The bull stared about wildly, looking for something to destroy, spotted the cape man and charged. Working the bull with an art that, to my ignorant eye, looked the equal of any I have seen performed by the great Spanish matadors, the peons put the bull through his paces, so that Moura could spot any troublesome eccentricities.

Then came the Moment of Truth, Portuguese-style -- which is no more bloody than a razor-thin escape from head-on collision -- and the planting of the ferro in the bull's back.

Moura placed his three long-handled darts, called ferros compridos, and switched to the three prescribed ferros curtos, not much longer than an ice pick, which forced him to lean dangerously out of the saddle and control the horse's rush with his knees. The first bull was a triumph for Moura, all six ferros closely grouped on the hump of fat and muscle over the bull's shoulders. He left to a delirious ovation from the crowd.

The bull remained, baffled, angry, looking for something or somebody he could get a satisfactory horn into. Eight gentlemen dressed in 17th-century costumes, not all of them young athletes by any means, filed out to present him a target. Advertised as the forcados de Santarem, they formed a single file, facing the bull. One of the forcados stepped forward, put on a green stocking cap (so the crowd could follow him in the melee to come, according to Manuel), placed hands on hips and began taunting the bull.

It didn't take many insults to launch the animal. The lead forcado stood his ground, and the bull crashed into him with a whoomph that shook the windows of the neighborhood, carrying him back into the file of his comrades, who smothered the bull's rush with their aggregate weight and wrestled him to a standstill. When the others released the bull, one of the forcados clung to the tail and was towed about the ring. The crowd greeted this insane display of bravado with wild enthusiasm.

"And they are all doctors, lawyers, businessmen who do this thing for fun and refuse money," said Manuel, giving the final evidence of their lunacy. "The forcado is the most Portuguese part of the show, a beautiful demonstration of manhood and prowess. We are proud that no other nation dares imitate our art."

The pega, as the forcado show is called, is the only part of the Portuguese bullfight likely to cause injury.

"As many as three forcados are killed every year," Manuel said. "Nobody bothers to count the broken legs, arms, collarbones, ribs and backs. Ah, yes, it is a very noble spectacle."

Maybe so, but bull-bashing of the bourgeoisie is a taste that takes a lot of time to develop, like a hankering for Russian beer or pineapple wine.

Meanwhile, anybody who has a taste for spectacle, for dazzling horsemanship, for ballet-like grace in the face of mortal danger, is a prime sucker for the Portuguese bullfight.