Castellers. Get information about the Els Castellers, an old famous tradition in Spain which consists of building human towers.
Human Towers in Spain
The construction of human towers is not exclusive to the inhabitants of the Catalonian region of Spain; there are references to these types of human constructions found all over the world. From Morocco to India, Italy to Germany, you can find these still happening today in one form or another. This innate tradition of building human towers has manifested itself in Catalonia in the creation of what we know today as the castell (castle in the Catalonian language).
Today, it is believed that the origin of today’s castells is the direct result of folk dances dating back to the 15th century. Those dances, known as Balls de Valecians (the Dance of the Valencians) and the Moixigangues are dances that incorporate the construction of human towers but instead of trying to maximize the height of the structure, these dances emphasize the flexibility of the structure along with transmitting an important religious message.
At the end of the 1700’s the first recorded castell was raised in the town of Arbós and by the beginning of the 19th century castells were becoming more popular and the creation of collas (teams) was increasing. The collas are similar to the brotherhoods that are so common around Holy Week. Part social club, part sports team, these clubs meet regularly throughout the year to practice tower building, compete in competitions and take part in castell demonstrations all around Catalonia.
The Catalonian town of Valls is considered the cradle of the castells because in 1805 the first collas of castellers were formed. During this time Tarragona was also very active making castells but, they would not have their first organized teams until a couple of years later. The first collas that were created were tied to the trades of the townsfolk with menestrals (craftsmen) and pagesos (farmers) being the first two collas to be established, with the pescadors (fisherman) forming one a little later. During this time of increasing popularity the heights of the castells also increased with dizzying quickness. By 1846 the castells were reaching heights of seven and eight levels or almost 30 feet. And in 1851 the first castell reached a height of 9 levels (around 33 feet). The heights reached in this golden age would not be repeated again until 1981.
This golden age lasted until 1889 and then the castells experienced an important decline in activity. With a phylloxera plague ravaging the vineyards, that were an important component of the local economy, together with the opening of a new rail line uniting Valls with Barcelona; the people needed to find opportunity elsewhere. This situation provoked a mass exodus from rural Catalonia to the big cities. This crisis affected castell activity so much that many teams disbanded or became inactive and towns like Valls and Tarragona saw little to no castell activity.
Years later with Europe recovering from the Great War and Spain having encountered a certain amount of stability in the 1920’s, the castell teams began to make a timid recovery. Old teams that hadn’t disbanded began to grow in numbers and new ones were being formed around Valls and Tarragona. Castell activity slowly increased with occasional competitions and exhibitions held around Catalonia. Unfortunately, this recovery would be short lived with the arrival of the Spanish Civil War. During this time all the collas disappeared.
Slowly, castell activity returned to life and with the consent of the dictatorship, teams began to re-form and over the next 30 years castell competitions were held and exhibitions celebrated in a part of Catalonia but not with the same amount of intensity that existed during the golden age a hundred years before. Finally, in the 1980’s something changed.
The castellers realized that brute strength was not enough to reach the heights they were aiming for: technique, weight and height also played a fundamental role in realizing the potential of what they were attempting to do. The incorporation of women was key to making this happen. Although women had occasionally participated in the collas, it was not until the early 1980’s that they were truly welcomed into the teams as active members. The colla Minyons de Terrassa, founded in 1979, was the first to openly recruit women. With this fundamental change in the mentality of the casteller groups, towers of nine levels became commonplace and the creation of casteller teams boomed.
Today, the casteller tradition is living a “platinum age” of popularity and innovation. The popularity of the castell is expanding to areas of Catalonia where there hasn´t existed a strong casteller tradition like in the cities of Lerida or Gerona as well as expanding to the Balearic Islands and to countries like Chile and Brazil.
Although the tradition of the human tower may be a global one, the Casteller tradition is one that is uniquely Catalonian and symbol of this region of Spain. This cultural icon represents a history and heritage where trust, teamwork and mutual effort combine to make something truly special has also been recognized by the UNESCO. In 2010 this tradition was granted status as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.