Imagine an agile six-year-old clambering up the face of a five-story building, waving from the top, then slithering back down.
Leaves your throat dry, doesn’t it?
Yet several times a week, that’s exactly what happens when the Castellers de la Vila de Gràcia rehearse their castells, or human towers.
“It’s not as dangerous as it looks,” said Helena Pons, explaining the inner workings of a tradition dear to Catalan hearts. “In fact it is less dangerous than other sports.”
Perhaps, but my breath stalled as I watched a tiny girl skip over the shoulders of grown men and women, protected by little more than a soft helmet and a look of extreme concentration.
This little video time-lapse will give you an idea of what I mean.
The castells emerged from religious ceremonies during the 18th century but were soon stripped of their divine nature as dancing and acrobatics took over. The original castells can be traced back to the town of Valls, west of Barcelona. When a second group began building human towers, a competition was born.
History hasn’t been smooth for the castells. By the 19th century the tradition had faded, reviving briefly in the 1920s only to be snuffed out by the Franco dictatorship and its efforts to crush regionalism.
The death of Franco and the flowering of Catalan culture gave the tradition a hefty push and now some 90 teams, called collas (prounounces COLL-yas), enjoy the sport throughout Catalunya, the distinctive northeastern corner of Spain where Catalan is spoken rather than Spanish and where at least half the population would rather separate from Spain.
So well has the tradition revived that the castell‘s uniqueness earned it a spot on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Castellers in rehearsal
In the narrow streets of Gràcia, once an independent village but now a Barcelona neighborhood, an unprepossessing building sits discreetly, its entrance like any of a hundred entrances with a half-closed metal shutter come evening. Inside, a stairway spirals downward towards a noisy alcove whose tables are crowded with small children grabbing a bit of supper. Some of the children belong to the castellers while others may be castellers themselves.
Around the corner is another, larger room, like a well whose ceiling is at least eight floors above my head, a bit like standing at the bottom of an empty diving pool.
This is where twice a week, sometimes more, dozens of castellers come to practice their art.
“We are all volunteers,” said Helena. “We are here because we love it.”
These aren’t athletes but everyday people – engineers, shopkeepers, students, or writers like Helena herself.
It is strictly an amateur sport but teams compete every two years in the city of Tarragona. The rest of the year they practice, subsidized by government authorities who support distinctive regional traditions, making up in part for the past. And someone, after all, has to pay for the practice halls, uniforms and travel.
Back on the floor the excitement mounts. Men and women twirl themselves swiftly into tight sashes that will protect their backs but also give teammates something to grasp as they climb. Today they wear their own clothes but when they perform they will wear navy shirts and white trousers to set off their red and black sashes.
The low hum of voices and camaraderie is suddenly punctured by the blast of a microphone. The team leader, the cap de colla, calls out each name and position. There is nothing haphazard about the tower: it is planned and executed with military precision, each person keenly aware of his or her exact place. Helena, for example, is in the painful and stressful crutch position, standing under the armpit of one of the tower’s key players – if his arm gets tired, she’ll be right there to support him.
The castles may be partly art, but they are definitely also a science.
The team here at Vila de Gràcia – the town of Gràcia, as it is still often called – is a Level 9 team (the highest being a 10); in other words it has won competitions to qualify as a tower with 9 levels of people standing on one another’s shoulders.
The castell may seem a bit pell-mell around the base but it has a clear logic.
A 3 of 9, for example, will be 9 stories of 3 people each; a 4 of 8 will be 8 stories with 4 people per level.
This is the basic and most common structure:
– a pinya or base at the bottom, often made of hundreds of people to distribute the weight of those above and to break the fall of anyone who comes tumbling down (and they sometimes do)
– if the tower is tall, an additional base level or two may be needed for support
– then comes the trunk, the tronc, the narrow human tower that emerges from the crowd below
– and finally, the pom de dalt at the top: two children holding onto each another, a third child crouched like a frog on top of them, and the fourth, the enxaneta, who steps around the ‘frog’, crossing over from one side of the crown to the other and waving an arm with four fingers in a salute that symbolizes either the flap of a wing or the four stripes of the Catalan flag, depending on the story.
The moment that arm waves, the castle is considered crowned and can now be dismantled.
Castellers holding up the tower cannot look up to see what’s going on. They’ll know it’s over when the music changes. The worst someone can do is look up – an innocent glance has apparently tumbled more than one castell and is the cause of 90% of all accidents, according to Helena.
That vision of tumbling children suddenly fights its way back into my mind.
“They can stop at any moment and absolutely no one will get upset. If a child (or anyone, for that matter) feels even a little uncomfortable, he or she says one word – down – and the castell will stop immediately,” Helena said.
A study by the coordinating body of castellers says this activity is less dangerous than it seems. Yet years ago when a child was hurt in an accident Helena’s parents refused to let her take part and she had to wait until she was an adult.
That accident apparently changed the face of the sport and made safety a key concern. A hybrid helmet developed as a result is now compulsory for children: it is hard inside to protect the child’s head and soft outside so those at the bottom aren’t throttled on the way down.
“The children are the VIPs,” Helena said. “We cherish them. We need everyone but at the end of the day nothing would happen without the children. When we are working, even if it hurts us we hold on because we know there are children on top of us.”
The human towers are much-loved by Catalans and are seen as representing their own values: Teamwork. Effort. The spirit of improvement.
The casteller motto? Força, equilibri, valor i seny. Strength. Balance. Courage. Good sense.
Applying to sport what they do to life.