Castells in Spain

By Jill Yesko

The scramble to be the top man on the totem pole isn't limited to corporate America. For hundreds of years, legions of castellers—human pyramid builders in the Spanish region of Catalunya—have been literally climbing over themselves to form castells, flesh and bone skyscrapers as high as five-story buildings.

These nosebleed-inducing creations combine architectural elements with death-defying stunts; it's not uncommon for 50 castellers to form a human wedding cake as tall as a small apartment building. Well-practiced teams can erect and dismantle a castell in five minutes flat.
Groups of castellers are found throughout the region of Cataluyna, located in the northeast of Spain and bordered by the Pyranees and the Mediterranean Sea. No festival in this region, no matter how small, is complete without the appearance of a human pyramid. So popular are castellers that there's even a Sunday night television show—Cataluyna's version of Monday Night Football—devoted to live broadcasts of the human pyramids in action.

No one knows just how this tradition evolved. Some say that castellers evolved from 16th-century folk dances, or that the towers represented religious paintings or human simulacra of the crucifixion of Christ. Other countries such as India and Morocco have their versions of the castellers. What makes Cataluyna's castellers unique is the degree of difficulty and level of pomp involved in each endeavor.

Building a Castell
Like a minor military campaign, each castell begins with the cap de colla, the benevolent drill sergeant whose job it is to direct the construction of the castell. Before the construction, the cap de colla painstakingly fills out a detailed blueprint of the construction-to-be. Precise calculations are drawn according to the height, weight, and level of experience of each casteller, lest the castell tumble like a house of cards.

The base of each castell is a pinya, a honeycomb-like formation of men who form the support pillars. The pinya also serves as a human safety net to break the fall of castellers. The bottom row of the pinya is made up of baixos, husky castellers who don't mind being the low men on the totem pole—or shouldering a huge burden; the combined weight of an average castell can easily approach 2,000 pounds. The baixos begin their Atlas-esque task by grasping the calves of the members on the second level. From there it's up, up, and away as successive tiers of castellers begin their stairway to heaven.

The next castellers solemnly climb to the top accompanied by the whiney strains of the gralla, a reed instrument related to the oboe that dates from medieval times. Special tunes are played during the construction so that the castellers on the bottom of the heap know just how far those above have climbed.

Topping off each castell is the enxaneta, a nimble child who slithers up the sweaty backs of his fellow tower mates. Once atop the castell, the enxaneta, whose weight cannot exceed 70 pounds, gives the aleta, the "all-clear" gesture signifying the successful completion of the castell.

Taking the Fall
While some groups of castellers aim for towering castells—the record now stands at ten tiers, about the height of a five-story building—others favor more creative structures such as side-by-side pillars in which castellers imitate human minarets. "Some people say that if it's not an eight [eight-tier-high castell], it's nothing," sniffs Oscar de los Rios, who runs a group of castellers in Tarragano. He adds that the most important thing in building a castell is simply getting the structure up and down without crashing.

To help castellers get a grip (literally), a ten-foot-long black sash called a faixa is wrapped tightly around the waist. The faixa not only helps support the lower back, it also serves as a fabric handhold for those ascending the castell. To help protect ears from abrasions, castellers also wear colorful paquelos, headscarves worn tightly over the scalp. Baggy white cotton pants, billowy shirts, and bare feet complete the outfit.

Taking a fall is part and parcel of being a casteller. The most dramatic fall, those where castellers collapse inwards, are the least harmful because the pinya breaks the fall. The most dangerous are those where castellers fall from the side of the tower, a sensation not unlike rappelling off a cliff without a rope.

Despite the danger, castellers insist their sport is far safer than other Spanish pastimes such as soccer or bullfighting. "I've fallen over ten times," boasts Juan Carlos, a casteller who lists hang-gliding among his favorite recreational activities. "My limit is the second level," demurs Greg Schillaci, an American expat who admits that being a casteller isn't for everyone. "My wife can't watch," he adds. "She's too afraid."

But for those with a bit of a daredevil in them, being a casteller is an experience of a lifetime. "Once you start doing it," says Schillaci, "you get hooked."

Practically Speaking
Castellers perform at major festivals throughout Cataluyna. Valls, the city dubbed the "cradle" of the tradition, showcases its human pyramids during the Firagost summer harvest festival. Another good place to see castellers in action is the city of Tarragona during the Sant Magi festival held in mid-August. Every two years, a championship of castellers is held in Tarragona; the next is planned for 2001.

Published: 28 Mar 2000 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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