Human Towers: Creating Connections through Movement

The crowd cranes their necks to watch as a group of more than 50 Catalonians- men, women, and children of all ages- gather in the courtyard, jostling and chatting for what seems to be 15 aimless minutes. The announcer admonishes the impatient crowd, telling us we must be silent until the band plays, so that the castellers can organize themselves and communicate properly as they build their human tower.

Building human towers, known as castells, is a 217-year old tradition from Catalonia, a region in northern Spain. Castells have become a mainstay of Catalan tradition, exploding in popularity with over 15,000 people in more than 100 groups today (there were only two groups during Franco’s reign), and being declared a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010. There is even a castell season- June to November for anyone who is planning a trip to Spain!

Every year, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival features cultural traditions from two different countries, with two weeks of free activities for anyone in Washington, DC! This year focused on Catalonia and Armenia, and the Human Tower performances and workshops were some of my favorites. The video footage shows a bit of both- the performances were done by professional castellers, and in the workshops they taught us how to build our own baby versions.

While it looks to us in the crowd that the group is just ambling about, they are really deciding how to best construct the tower and assigning each position. The base, known as the pinya, is the largest group of people. The first person they build around is the piege, which means “the one below.” This person will be in the very center of the base, and is usually very short and stocky. Next, two even shorter people are chosen to be the “crutches”- they position themselves under the piege’s arms, wedging their heads under his armpit. The person leading our workshop informed us that if the tower were to fall, the crutches would take the brunt of the hurt rather than the piege.

After that, people hug in close, forming layer after layer. The first layer is called the aguja, which translates to needle. These people are the tallest, since they are the ones that will be holding the derrieres of the people on the 2nd floor and need to fully support them. As the pinya expands out, the person building our mini tower looked for people who were a medium height with wide shoulders- since the upper layers need to be able to climb up and over the base, they cannot be people who are very tall.

Every casteller group wears a similar costume- a team shirt in their color, a pair of white pants, a waist sash, and a pair of easily removed sandals. The white pants are traditional, stemming from the famers who built the first human towers and whose only clean clothes were their undergarments- long white pants. The waist sashes (faixes) will help protect each person’s lower back, and will be used as leverage by those climbing up.

As the mass of Catalonians suddenly press together, four people around the outside kick off their sandals and begin to scramble up their friends, pressing their feet into the backs of their knees, pulling themselves up and over their heads to walk on their shoulders into the center, where they grab each other’s forearms for stability while their feet, ankles, legs, even their butts, are held in place by the people forming the base of the human tower around them.

You might expect the people forming the upper layers of the tower to all be small, but this first layer is made up of fully grown men, with each layer being comprised by shorter and lighter people, until the final row of children, wearing equestrian helmets with their name emblazoned on the back, ascend. The tower is not successfully assembled until the very top child, the enxaneta, crawls from one side of the tower to the other and raises their hand in a beauty pageant wave twice. Now we are allowed to cheer, and the crowd goes wild!

In perfect synchronicity, all four children from the top layer begin to descend, climbing down the bodies as if they were a coconut tree, and leaping from the shoulders of the last base person into the waiting arms of their mother or father. Layer by layer, the people slide down their friends and family like a fireman pole, jumping into the waiting arms of another casteller.  

It was very inspiring to see the performance, where they made three different human towers of various configurations (seven layers with three people per layer, four layers with four people per layer, etc.). Yet the workshop really brought you to the heart of human tower building- after being pressed in a sweaty mass, literally supporting each other, we all felt a new connection with our neighbors. As the leader of our workshop said, “strong friendships come from human towers- that’s who you become family.”


A super cute family recreating their own mini human tower

This was my first time filming and editing my own video on my iPhone, so please excuse the terrible quality! I usually film on my laptop, which is just sitting there while I'm dancing. Any tips and tricks much appreciated in the comments!  Have you ever seen a human tower before?  I was totally blown away!

Val OliphantComment