VALLS, Spain >> It took the child about a minute to scramble up the wobbly human tower, more than three stories tall. He paused for a few precarious seconds, to steady himself, before raising his hand to thunderous applause from the crowds packed into this town’s main square.
The spectacle was part of a festival last month in Valls, the birthplace of the castells, as the human towers are called in Catalan, a tradition established here in 1801 and developed out of a folkloric dance.
Since then, the castells have only become taller and more complex – risking collapse as they employ as many as 600 people, sometimes in nine or 10 tiers of participants who bind their strength in an elaborate interweaving of arms and bodies.
Recently the castells have taken on new significance and popularity as Catalonia presses to break away from Spain, reinvigorating a sense of pride and identity.
During the festival, the walls and balconies of the main square were covered with Catalan flags and banners urging residents to vote for secession on Nov. 9, when Catalonia is set to hold a straw ballot, despite strong political and legal objections from Madrid.
In June, as part of a day of secessionist demonstrations, castells were erected by Catalans in cities across Europe, including Berlin, Rome, Brussels and Paris.
Some politicians have seized on the castell as a metaphor for their state-building ambitions.
“Great structures can be built if people are united in pursuit of a clear goal,” said Jordi Agr‘s Estalella, a regional culture official, who was watching the competition in Valls.
Independent of political tensions, however, the castells are in themselves a fiercely competitive affair. The largest castell tournament takes place every two years in Tarragona, inside a bullfighting ring. But for many aficionados, the castells are best appreciated in the town festivals like the one here.
Josep Soli Tarrags, a former president of the oldest team in Valls, the Colla Vella, suggested that its crosstown rivalry, with the Colla Joves, was “one of the most passionate amateur rivalries in the world,” akin to that between the university rowing teams of Oxford and Cambridge.
In fact, after Gen. Francisco Franco won Spain’s civil war in 1939, he forced the two teams in Valls to merge because “this wasn’t the kind of rivalry that suited a totalitarian regime,” according to Soli Tarrags. Such was the rivalry, however, that the merger fell apart within a decade.
To build a castell, the biggest and strongest participants clutch each other to form the pinya, or base, on top of which others climb to raise the actual tower. As the tower rises, the participants shrink in size until only one child, known as the enxaneta, climbs to the apex of the tower and raises a hand.
Castells often collapse during the construction phase. While there have been very few fatalities, injuries sometimes occur. Even the tower’s dismantling is a risky step, and nowadays the children who climb to the top wear helmets.
Teams are judged not only by whether they complete their towers but also on the complexity of the structure, akin to how jumps are rated in ice skating competitions.
In Valls, the winner was not decided by a panel of judges but rather by the passion of the spectators, who scream their approval – or anguish if the tower falls.
At the end of the competition, Josep Maria Cortis, a member of the Colla Joves, suggested the latest crosstown duel had yielded “perhaps a draw.”
But Joan Ibarra, the president of the Colla Vella, dismissed the notion.
“We won by a mile,” he said, with a broad smile.
Some members of the Colla Vella said they joined as children because their family took part since the 19th century. One change, however, has been the inclusion of female participants, particularly among the youngest climbers.
“When I was young, it wasn’t acceptable for a woman to get into such physical contact with a man in public,” said Ramsn San Nicolas, who is 76 and has built castells since 1947. “But the fact is that girls are lighter and sometimes have an even stronger grip than boys.”
After watching the competition from the balcony of his town hall, Albert Batet, the mayor of Valls, said he was also hopeful about Catalonia’s progress toward statehood, drawing a comparison between the values required to create a nation and a human tower.
“Both are proof that we can build great things if we come together,” Batet said.
The official slogan of the castells is “forga, equilibri, valor i seny” – strength, balance, courage and common sense.
Castells were recognized as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO in 2010, at the same time as flamenco, the quintessential dance of southern Spain.
But unlike flamenco, which has increasingly attracted foreign dancers and been performed worldwide, the castells remain deeply embedded in Catalonia, with the best teams only occasionally getting to travel to the United States and elsewhere to showcase their skills.
Even within Catalonia, the popularity of castells dates to only three decades ago, when Catalonia’s newly created regional television started to broadcast competitions.
“That turned castells into a fashion, when before they had really only been popular in a few towns and among humble people, like farmers and port workers,” said Angel Conesa, who is among the judges of the Tarragona tournament.
Catalonia now has about 60 colles, or teams, double the number 25 years ago. Although the two teams from Valls remain strong, they have been beaten recently by rivals from other towns, notably Vilafranca del Penedhs.
“We are living the best and most competitive moment in the history of the castells,” Soli Tarrags said.
While he conceded that the castells had benefited from a greater sense of Catalan identity, he insisted the traditional and cultural significance had not become hostage to the secessionist drive.
“The beauty of the castells is that they are built by people of every age, size and belief and are not about politics,” he said, “even if it’s probable that 90 percent of those who take part would vote for independence.”