Reaching New Heights

As three strong sets of hands firmly wind coarse, raven-coloured cloth around my abdomen, I am absolutely certain that the end of my life is in sight. Meanwhile, four strong men, adorned in matching blue button-ups and white pants, secure their interlocking grips on each other's shoulders, awaiting my inauguration. Shaking like a leaf, I hesitantly inch forward while my audience laughs at my apprehensive demeanor. Clapping and cheering, they egg me on toward my impending doom. They assure me there is nothing to be scared of, but my heart, hammering through my chest, clearly suggests otherwise. Nevertheless, one foot in front of the other, I begin to climb.

When I heard about the castellers for the first time, even just the very idea triggered my vertigo. This Catalan tradition, which has become increasingly popular in modern France, has men, women and children of all ages scaling the backs of friends and family in order to (quite literally) demonstrate their continual support for each other.

With troupes often based in regions and communities, the castellers stand on each other's shoulders, creating human towers, the tallest of which have reached up to 10 stories high. The oldest members of the community intertwine to create the base, which doubles as a human safety net. Often they'll beckon willing on-lookers to assist in the process. Meanwhile, the youngest members of the casteller troops, capped with thick black helmets, shimmy their way up the backs of their elders to proudly stand atop the tower's peak. Their midsections enveloped by supportive fabric to ensure strength, the castellers exhibit a great deal of vigor in both body and mind.

From the practiced senior to the wide-eyed youth, the casteller tradition successfully manages to preserve and prolong the Catalan culture within its own boundaries, as well as enlighten those outside of it. The symbolism of the castellers' physical endurance translates into a tangible essence of familial support and affection, which radiates even beyond the troupe's margins.

So as the Angelets Del Vallespir casteller troupe wrapped my belly like a birthday present, it was no wonder that my fear was surpassed by comfort; I could feel the supportive, trusting and compassionate spirit that this particular team shares. Based out of the small town of St Jean Pla De Corts, the troupe includes generations of relatives and collections of comrades, all of whom made me feel at home over the days I spent observing them.

Despite my fear, I had developed a strong sense of faith in this group of athletes who treated me like one of their own – so much so that they collectively insisted I try climbing up their casteller myself. And thus, trembling with nerves but overcome by trust, one foot in front of the other, I began to climb.

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About the Program

Fifteen college students came from North America to Perpignan, France, in June 2011 to produce these videos and stories. To find out more, read a welcome letter from program director Rachele Kanigel, meet the program faculty and explore the 2010 website.