A living art built in flesh and bone

Spain: In Catalonia, people form towers with their bodies -- as high as a small apartment building

Destination: Europe

February 27, 2000|By Jill Yesko | Jill Yesko,Special to the Sun

The scramble to be the top man on the totem pole isn't limited to corporate America. For hundreds of years, legions of castellers -- men, women and children in the Spanish region of Catalonia -- have been climbing over themselves to form castells, human towers that can be as high as five-story buildings.

The towers formed by castellers resemble human architectural creations, flesh and bone skyscrapers erected and dismantled by well-practiced teams in less than five minutes. The fanciful structures can include more than 50 people and rise as tall as a small apartment building.

The need to be head and shoulders above the crowd isn't limited to Spain. Other countries, such as India and Morocco, also have their versions of the castellers. But what makes Catalonia's castellers stand out is the degree of difficulty and amount of pomp and circumstance involved in their routines.

Castellers begin their work accompanied by the strains of the gralla, a reed instrument related to the oboe that dates from medieval times. Certain tunes are played during the construction process that indicate to the castellers on the bottom just how far those above have climbed.

Groups of castellers are found in cities and towns from the French border along the Pyrenees to the beaches of the Costa Brava. No festival, no matter how small, is complete without the appearance of the local troupe of castellers.

So popular are castellers in Catalonia that there is even a Sunday-night television show devoted to live broadcasts of castellers in action.

Just why humans like to stack themselves into towers is a mystery. 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. What is known is that the first documented group of castellers began in the city of Valls, today considered the cradle of the castellers and home to one of the most important collas, or colleges, the generic name given to groups of castellers.

Building human castles is a complex task. To see what's involved, I paid a visit to a practice session at the Colla Jove Xiquets de Tarragona, one of two collas in Tarragona. Less a formal college than a civic organization crossed with a circus troupe, the 500-member Colla Jove Xiquets sends representatives to contests during the casteller season, which stretches from April to December. While more traditional collas are all-male affairs, the Colla Jove is co-ed. Members range in age from 5 to 80.

"People think we're crazy here, they don't get it," says Oscar de los Rios, a veteran casteller and spokesman for the colla. According to Rios, being a casteller is a matter of Catalan pride, a sentiment that may be difficult for outsiders to fully understand.

Like a minor military campaign, each castell begins with the cap de colla, the benevolent drill sergeant whose job is to direct the construction of the castell. Before the construction, the cap de colla 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.

All castells begin with a pinya, a honeycomb formation of men who form the support pillars. The pinya also serves as a human safety net to break the fall of castellers.

The combined weight of an average castell can easily approach 2,000 pounds. To shoulder the burden, the bottom row of the pinya is made up of baixos, husky male castellers. The baixos begin their task by grasping the calves of the members on the second level. From there, successive tiers of castellers begin their climb.

While being in the thick of the pinya isn't for agoraphobics, it does have its appeal. It's an adrenalin rush -- two minutes of intense activity, declares Greg Schillaci, an American-born casteller who compares being in the heart of the pinya to being "buried alive."

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

While some groups aim for towering castells -- the record stands at 10 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.

To help castellers get a grip, a 10-foot-long black sash called a faixa is wrapped tightly around the waist of each participant. The faixa helps support the lower back and also serves as a fabric handhold for those ascending the castell. To help protect ears from abrasions, castellers also wear colorful head scarves pulled tightly over the scalp. Baggy white cotton pants, billowy shirts and bare feet complete the outfit.

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