Human towers, known as castells, are a long-time Catalan tradition, but some say it teaches more than just good balance.
This year, one of the most well-known castell groups in Barcelona, called “Castellers de Sants”, will celebrate its 20th anniversary, yet they still say that “the best is yet to come”. The team, or colla, was started in the Sants district of Barcelona after the two founders came across a castells contest in the south of Catalonia and wanted to do something similar in their own neighbourhood.
Twenty years later, many generations of different families have been members of the colla, and many have been there from the start. Castells are a part of their lifestyle.
Castells originate from an 18th century Catalonian dance, which ended with a little human tower of two or three levels high. But over time, the focus moved from the dance to the building of the towers, and now collas aim to build up to nine levels.
The tradition say a huge boom in popularity in the nineties as it spread across the region. The years that followed saw a decline again, but it now seems that castells are more popular than ever. Pau Camprovín, the head of the Sants colla, believes that the resurgence in its popularity has to do with this current crisis. “It is a free activity where all members of the same family can participate. Besides, we travel a lot and children learn important values, which are fundamental for them. We could say that this crisis is being positive for us.”
There are no fees, and any person interested in building a castell only has to rehearse and get involved as much as he or she wants. So to survive, the president of the Sants Colla Esther Oriol says, they have to be creative to raise money. “We are helped by the administration but, because its grants are smaller every time, we organize workshops at schools or at companies to teach the castells’ values, by using team-building techniques.”
“There is no title, no Guinness Record and no financial reward.”
The Sants colla rehearses twice a week during the castells season, which starts in March and ends in November, generally performing three times a month. “This is an amateur activity, a rooted tradition in the south of Catalonia and now for some years, also in the Barcelona area,” Oriol tells The Foreign Report. “In Barcelona there are six colles, which means that there are more than 2,000 people involved in castells.”
It also helps to break some external prejudices on Catalan people, who are usually seen as private people. “Sometimes, it is believed that castells are also a private activity, but that is not truth at all,” Camprovín explains. “Anyone can participate, everyone is valid: it does not matter what your size is, what your sex is, there is always one place for you in the team. Depending on each one’s mental and physical conditions, people will take up one position or another, but everybody is accepted.”
Thousands of people of many different ages are involved in castells all around Catalonia, and 96% of Catalans see them as positive.
As Oriol and Camprovín see it, castells are appreciated due to the values they teach. “It is the most important teamworking activity. There is nothing, which involves so many people working together for a same goal that, at the same time, is absolutely ephemeral. The tower can last only two minutes and the maximum you get from it is a picture, and only a few people will appear in it. There is no title, no Guinness Record and no financial reward,” they say.
Besides, castells are not a competitive activity, and there is only one contest, which takes place in Tarragona every two years. Everybody tries their best and everyone helps each other, including members of other colles. It is not about being better than anyone else, but doing the best you can.
These values have interested many people round the globe: from Chile to China and India, there are many intercultural exchanges where colles teach how to make a human tower. In Esther Oriol opinion, castells are a Catalan tradition, but their values are universal. “More than a half of our colla members are from Sants district, but being a Sants neighbour means to live there. It is not mandatory to be born in Sants, or be Catalan, to be part of our colla. Indeed, castells are a great cultural integration tool for anyone, even for those who are not from Barcelona, from Catalonia or even from Spain.”
Castells are one of the most outstanding expressions of traditional culture of Catalonia, and colles are committed to popular culture. “We have national awareness but we can not be linked to any political party. The Catalan nationalism boom may favour the tradition, but there is not a straight connection, because there are many different people within our colla. We are open and plural,” explains Oriol.
Pau Camprovín adds that the good atmosphere they have also helps people to get involved in castells: “We do not only rehearse and perform. We also meet for birthday celebrations and we usually see Barça matches together. We are like a family.” A family where it is possible to make deep friendships at ages when they do not normally happen. Emotional links which strengthen the team.
For Oriol, it is clear: “We would not make good castells if there was not a good atmosphere, and there would not be a good atmosphere if we did not make good castells. As a colla, we always try to go together, and this has been proved during these twenty years of constant evolution. And we are absolutely sure that the best is yet to come!”