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The Social Climbers

A human tower, or castell, near completion in Red Bulletin mag Philip Horak/Red Bulletin Magazine


Human towers, known as castells, are as much a part of Catalan culture as the architecture of Antoni Gaudí and FC Barcelona. Their origins are in aerial dance moves demonstrated at religious festivals over 200 years ago. Today, about 7,000 castellers in 66 different clubs keep the tradition alive. Competitions are held around Barcelona between April and November. There are no judges to award points: Whoever builds the most spectacular human pyramid wins.

The best teams can pile their members on top of one another to build human towers up to 10 levels high. The tower is considered complete when the person on top -- almost always a child -- raises an arm. Anyone passionate and committed can become a casteller. Profession, age, and gender are irrelevant. The clubs, colles in Catalan, are great equalizers. “You have unemployed people climbing on politicians,” says Josep Cabré, president of the Castellers de Vilafranca. “Everyone in the tower is equal.”

The circular bottom layer of a human tower is called the pinya. It takes shape around the four men at the center. Other castellers then climb onto their shoulders to form the upper levels. A load-bearer in the pinya has to balance up to 770 lbs. on his shoulders. Salvador Moreno has been doing that for 23 years. “Sometimes I pass out,” he says.

nullPhilip Horak/Red Bulletin Magazine

Physique and talent determine a casteller’s position in the tower. Some climb to the top of the human pyramid when they are young schoolchildren, form part of the middle levels as adolescents and support their friends in the pinya as pensioners. The castellers’ motto is the same for everyone, regardless of age: “Força, Equilibri, Valor i Seny,” or “Strength, Balance, Courage and Common Sense.”

Most accidents happen when the towers are being deconstructed. One person’s error is enough to make a 300-person castell collapse. But serious injuries remain rare, since the large number of castellers in the base break the fall of those above.

Building human towers means months of training for the short moment when 300 people come together in perfect harmony. Spectators go wild when a castell is complete; castellers celebrate only once it has been successfully dismantled. “Making human towers,” says Pere Almirall i Piqué, the Castellers de Vilafranca trainer, “is like a drug.”

nullPhilip Horak/Red Bulletin Magazine

Three champion castellers on the fear of collapse, pain in the neck (and elsewhere), and the psychology of the human tower.

Pere, the architect.
Pere Almirall i Piqué is the go-to guy for planning the perfect human tower. Piqué, 38, has a youthful face and is the cap de colla of the Castellers de Vilafranca -- the coach of Catalonia’s most successful human-tower-building team. His team, from Vilafranca, a town of 38,000 people about 30 miles west of Barcelona, has won nine national championships, more than any other club. It is one of only two teams worldwide to have built a 10-level castell.

“I like the mix of tradition and thrills,” says Piqué, in his office in the center of town. “Making human towers is like a drug. You’ll get addicted eventually.”

As cap de colla, it is up to Piqué to decide who goes where in the tower. He decides on tactics for competitions and gives climbing instructions. “You learn how to get on with everyone and how to judge their talents correctly. You have to be equally able to motivate builders and bankers.”

He coordinates the construction of the tower from outside the pinya, the circular foundation of the castell. “It’s a nerve-racking job, because you’re responsible for its success, but you can’t get actively involved.”

Piqué says that only one in every 100 of his towers collapses. This usually happens during the critical phase shortly after the tower begins to dismantle, when the people at the bottom are already exhausted.

The last time one of his castells fell in on itself was the day before a competition, during a training session on the Vilafranca town square, with 4,000 home supporters looking on.

“Somebody in the second level put the weight on the wrong foot and slipped off. You can’t afford to make that sort of mistake.”

After the collapse it was up to Piqué, whose day job is selling fire doors, to massage the egos of 300 men, women, and children. “I tried to speak to every one of them individually,” he explains. “As the cap de colla, you’re a counselor too.”

And what did he say to his team? “I said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid. You’re good.’ ”

nullPhilip Horak/Red Bulletin Magazine

Salvador, the laborer.
Cal Figarot is the headquarters of the Castellers de Vilafranca association. The two-story central building has conference rooms and a lavish dining hall. To get to the gym, where the castellers practice their formations, you go through the adjacent garden. This place is reminiscent of a circus school: A safety net protects the castellers as they climb during training. A pinboard on a wall has sketches of plans for future castells.

Salvador Moreno is stretched out on the grass in front of the gym having his broad back massaged. He is 54 years old and has the upper body of a weightlifter. His position in the tower is called baixos in Catalan, which means “the ones at the bottom.” Moreno and his fellow baixos form the base of the human tower, balancing up to nine levels on their shoulders. Depending on the weight distribution above, he might have to support as much as 770 lbs.

“It’s hard to breathe,” says Moreno of his condition when a tower is complete. “It’s pitch black where I’m positioned. I can’t see the people next to me, but we urge each other on.”

The baixos have to be small and strong. Moreno is 5’5” and weighs 211 lbs. Castellers will tell you that a tower’s heartbeat is in the baixos.

Moreno regularly works on his back muscles. The black cummerbund he wraps around his waist provides extra stability. “I still get back pain anyway,” he says. Moreno has been part of the human pyramids for 23 years. Often people start out on the top of the tower as small children, he explains, and as years go by they work themselves down to the bottom. Moreno works as a salesman in a gardening store.

“Not many people can become baixos,” he explains. “Sometimes I faint when the castellers are coming down off my shoulders, but building human towers makes me happy.”

nullPhilip Horak/Red Bulletin Magazine

Silvia, the tower mother.
It is evening in Cal Figarot, the association headquarters. The local TV channel, TV3, is showing highlights of the tower-building competitions. While the grown-ups discuss their rivals’ castells over a beer, a gaggle of children maraud noisily through the canteen. Generations come together in the towers. The youngest member of the Castellers de Vilafranca is just 6, the oldest is 63.

Silvia Sabaté is 44 and has been involved with castells since she was 18. She generally helps the baixos in the base. Meanwhile, her children Pere (11), Foix (10) and Aina (8), climb as high as the eighth level. “I get nervous every time they’re up there,” she says.

In 2006, in Mataró, 12 miles northeast of Barcelona, a 12-year-old girl died as a result of her injuries from a fall. The little ones have been obliged to wear helmets and use mouthguards ever since. The team warms up together before every competition. They practice how to fall safely in training. Serious injuries, in and out of competition, are rare.

Sabaté works as a pediatrician in a Vilafranca hospital. “If I thought the risk was too high, I wouldn’t let my children go up there,” she says, “and I believe in the educational value of tower-building."

What can children learn in the castell? Sabaté thinks about it for a moment.

“That everyone is equal.”



Check out the April 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands March 12) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app. Follow Red Bulletin on Twitter for more.


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