When I said I was moving to Catalonia, a friend said I should join the human pyramid teams. I laughed at the idea. But here I am nine months later, a weedy, British casteller, embedded in the mass of bodies above. So here are some insights from within the castellers:
1.They’re not human pyramids: English descriptions of the castell tradition normally describe the formations as human pyramids – but they’re not: they’re human castles. The word ‘castell’ literally means ‘castle’ in Catalan.
2. Castells are Catalan: Human tower building is very Catalan; it is considered a proud symbol of Catalonia’s culture, independent of Spain. In my group of 100+ castellers, I am told I am the first international member. Having said that, it is a little known secret that the idea actually originated in the folk dances of southern Spain.
3. It starts with a pineapple: 90% of castellers are positioned in the ‘pinya’, or ‘pineapple’, at the base of the tower. People in the pinya have two purposes: 1). To be stood on and support castellers above and 2). To be fell on if the tower collapses. Glamourous, I know! But what’s great is that it genuinely feels like everyone is valued equally – whether you’re down in the pinya or sky high. Until recently, the pinya was formed by leaders shouting instructions but now apps and diagrams are used to create this kaleidoscope of human bodies.
4. What is it like to be in the pinya? Sweaty. Very sweaty. Remember that these castells are being performed in thirty degree heat and you’re effectively spooning with about 70 other people. Being in the pinya can make it hard to remember why becoming a casteller seemed a logical life choice.
5. The music is key. The performances are accompanied by stirring casteller music. The different stages of the song coordinate with the different stages in the performance. This means that technically even if your head is wedged between an armpit and an ankle, you should be able to figure out what is going on above you. To be honest, I rarely know what’s happening but the music heightens the drama and radiates out through the pinya and crowd beyond.
6. It’s all about the social side. When I first went along to a castellers training session, I wore leggings, trainers and a sports top, expecting weights and exercises. But it’s really not about the sport and you don’t do exercises. Both training and performances are more like chat, chat, tower, chat, chat, chat, tower and so on… And this is the great thing about it: it’s a welcoming community of people brought close together (literally) by a common goal.
7. It’s a competition – and yet it’s not. At performances, normally 3 colles meet to “compete”. Each team scores points for the height, complexity, construction and deconstruction of the castell. But normally, as a fellow casteller explained, it’s more about competing against your own team’s past performances than against other teams. Hence, you’ll see that members of the blue team might help in the pinya of a green team.
8. It’s risky. Castellers make it seem easy – but trust me, it’s not. Castells are made of gritted teeth, quaking muscles and dripping sweat. There is a reason that the people at the top wear helmets; when the teeth, muscles and sweat fail, it’s a long way down. Not to mention the injuries which come with being crushed by the weight of those above. As one teenage girl explained, “Some people think I’m crazy to continue.”
9. The clothes. Castellers typically wear a black band (faixa), a shirt, a bandana, bare feet and white trousers. Why? Hard to say really! To be fair, there is some logic behind the pirate-inspired costumes. The black band acts as both a back support and a ladder rung for the climbers. The shirts are different colours for different colles (teams). The bare feet allow better grip – just like it did for pirates. The white trousers … There is no valid reason for white trousers. I don’t have any; I have to wear white pyjama bottoms instead.
10. The exaneta: The child who climbs to the top is called the exaneta. They often start as young as six and their role is crucial. The moment they cross the top of the tower and raise their hand signals that the construction is complete. If you look carefully, you’ll see that their hand is raised with four fingers, signifying the four stripes of the Catalan flag. They rarely seem nervous – but their parents always make up for their lack of nerves.