“I Think I Am Addicted”:
The Human Tower Experience
People pressed close to the yellow caution tape that marked the area in which 200 castellers, or human tower makers, were building a tower seven people high. The public was quiet, having been instructed not to clap until the enxaneta, the child at the top of the tower, raised their hand. Those watching held their breath, observing the tower as it swayed with every person added. The noise of the gralla, a Catalan double-reed wind instrument, and the steady beat of the drums permeated the silence , signaling to the castellers how the tower was progressing.
When the enxaneta finally reached the top and raised their hand, the tension broke as the gralla trilled triumphantly and the public cheered.
Castells are an emotional experience, both for the people doing it and for those watching. These demonstrations of community, balance, and strength are eye-catching and unforgettable, yet those who are unfamiliar with the tradition are often dumbfounded. “Why?” they ask. “What causes someone to want to be part of a human tower?”
Before the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, human towers seemed to me to be like Marmite on toast, something that you had to grow up experiencing to enjoy. After ten days of working closely with the two collas, or human tower teams, watching them build more than thirty-six castells, and helping with smaller hourly demonstrations, my opinion changed. I found myself texting a friend of mine, “I think I am addicted to human towers.”
On the last day of the Festival, a small number of staff, including Ashley Martinez, Katie Babbit, Sean Tomlinson, and myself, were given the opportunity to be part of a few human towers. While we were part of the pinya, the large group of people that make up the base of the tower, staff members Daniela Panetta and Pablo Molinero got to be the second person in a pilar, a tower that has only one person per level.
When first asked to participate, all of us were worried—not that the tower would fall, but that we would make a mistake and let the rest of the team down.
“I really didn’t expect for them to let us join,” Tomlinson said. “I thought they would say, ‘No, please step back and let the professionals do it.’”
For those in the pilar, this pressure felt even more intense.
“I knew I wouldn’t fall because I had a bunch of people supporting me, but at the same time I felt a lot of responsibility for the person I was holding,” Molinero explained. “I didn’t want to mess it up.”
Not only did they let us try, but they also welcomed us with open arms.
“While I was being told what to do, I looked over and made eye contact with two kids who gave me two thumbs up,” Martinez described. “In that moment, I knew that it was going to be okay, that I wasn’t going to be an outsider intruding on their tradition.”
For those of us in the pinya, the task was simple: line up with the person in front of you, bring your arms up and grab their forearms, lean into their back, and keep your head down. While it may not sound thrilling, it was an intense experience, connecting to those around you.
“It’s their own little community that you are suddenly part of,” Babbit said.
While my head was down and my eyes closed, I could feel the rest of the tower: the subtle movements of the group shifting to provide the proper amount of pressure, the steadying body of the person behind me, the rush of joy when the gralla trilled, and the sensation of small feet as the children walked on my shoulders to get to their parents.
Everyone in the pinya was surprised by how they felt after being part of the human tower. Adrenaline coursed through our bodies and the nerves in our arms were alight.
“You need time to process what happened because it is so amazing and unfamiliar,” Tomlinson explained. “Someone came up to us right after to ask what it was like. I wanted to ask if I could paint an abstract picture of how I felt. It was indescribable.”
For those who were part of the pilar, the experience was even more intense. Panetta and Molinero stood on someone’s shoulders while eight pairs of hands held them in place. Two children climbed up them to make a four-person pilar.
“The team was so amazing and so comforting,” Panetta said. “You can feel that they have your back and that everything is going to be fine. I was not scared at all. I was just excited. My heart was racing in a good way. When you are doing it, you are concentrating so hard that nothing else matters. It was like an out-of-body experience”
Before the Festival, before that last day even, none of us had expected that we would be part of a human tower, nor that we would like it as much as we did. When asked if we would do it again, every one of us emphatically said yes.
“I am sure that if I were to live in Catalonia I would be part of a human tower team,” Molinero said.
We had all caught the human tower fever.
Caroline Diemer is a Catalonia program intern at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. She recently graduated from Wesleyan University where she majored in archaeology and the College of Letters, an interdisciplinary major of literature, history, and philosophy, with a concentration in Spanish. She has a love for ancient structures and a newfound love for structures made out of humans.