A bright sea of coloured shirts and outstretched arms closes round a human huddle, similar to a rugby scrum, known in Catalan as the pinya (pineapple). Strong-looking men hoist themselves up onto shoulders beneath, arms locked together in a taut circle. The next men to clamber upwards form the central part of the castell, the tronc (trunk), made up of some two to five human layers. Finally, two tiny children, no older than five or six, scramble skyward to put the top layer on the castell (castle), known in Catalan as the pom de dalt (the crown of the castle). Gralles (oboe-like traditional instruments) screech into life and the atmosphere of the plaça (town square) reaches fever pitch.
Defying straightforward definitions, the castell is more than a national sport: it’s a form of social display, requiring huge commitment from all castellers (participants). “It´s a mixture of hard work and lots of fun,” comments team captain of casteller group the Castellers de Espulgues, Joseph Maria Tarres. “If people saw it only as a sport, they wouldn´t last out.”
The teams of castellers, known as colles (pronounced ´koi-yas´), meet twice a week to practise the technically complex structures. There are a total of 65 teams in Catalunya, Ibiza and Mallorca, according to the magazine Descobrir Catalunya. During the practice sessions, different sections of the castle-like structures are made, but never the whole castle. “The full structure is saved for the plaça,” comments Joseph Maria. “This is the moment that counts when castellers are accompanied by music and new records are broken.”
The castell season runs from April to November, with teams performing regularly at festa majors, national celebrations and Catalan competitions. Castellers first came to prominence as a Catalan tradition during the 18th century. Town councils across Catalunya document how the castells were originally part of a dance that was performed at the annual festa major of every town. Before the industrial revolution, trade guilds were responsible for overseeing different professions within society. At the festa major, each guild performed a dance in a procession alongside religious figures and political leaders. The Ball dels Valencians (Valencian dance) was famous for incorporating small castells of five or six people into the dance sequence.
According to documents from 1683 found in Reus, the guild that had most connection with the Ball dels Valencians was the Ploughmen´s Guild. However, some sources link the Word ‘Valencian’ not with the Spanish province of Valencia but with the Latin word for strength, ‘Valentium’. In this context, the Ball dels Valencians, and the act of making castells, is linked to professions that required physical strength. Other theories centre, however, on the idea that Ball dels Valencians does indeed originate in Valencia from a separate but similar tradition known as the muixeranga.
For many people today, castellers have come to represent strength, cohesion, passion and team building. “It’s an intense five minutes,” says team leader Josep Maria, “You have to bear a huge amount of tension and weight.” These characteristics are often claimed to be key traits of the Catalan national character; if flamenco describes Andalucia then castellers represents Catalunya.
Many collers have foreign members, who find that participating in castellers is a great way to integrate with Catalan culture. “There are people that have immigrated here from other parts of the world such as Eastern Europe, South America, and Cuba,” says Joseph-Maria Tarres. “I wouldn’t classify them as foreigners as they live here in Catalunya now.”
The issue of safety has recently come to overshadow casteller displays following the death of 12-year-old Mariona Galindo on August 4th, 2006, after falling from a nine storey human tower. Helmet trials are currently being implemented by teams across Catalunya in an attempt to minimise the risk involved, while affecting the technical and aesthetic aspects of the Casteller tradition as little as possible.