After years of performing and hundreds of shows, Rong Niu still gets nervous. Awaiting halftime of Thursday’s ACC Tournament quarterfinal between Duke and Louisville, Niu – known to basketball fans everywhere as Red Panda for her unicycle-riding, bowl-flipping halftime act – stood facing a black curtain under the Barclays Center stands, facing away from foot traffic.
In her mind, she said, she went over her routine and her technique to flip five bowls stacked rim to rim from her right foot onto her head while keeping a 7 ½-foot unicycle steady with her left foot.
“Once I get out there, and once the music starts and once I get into it, then I don’t feel as nervous, but right before, yes,” Niu said. “Because I don’t know if I’ll miss or not. Like (Thursday). It doesn’t matter how much I practice. Still, I can miss.”
Born in China, Niu has become a cult celebrity in the U.S., traveling across the country to NBA and college basketball arenas (sometimes to arena football and hockey games, where they roll out a carpet for her) to perform her act, night after night. She had 18 shows in February, she said. She is an annual feature of the ACC Tournament, her arrival anticipated by fans (and media) who attend this tradition-bound tournament annually.
How does one arrive at this occupation? Niu was born to acrobat parents. Her mother was a fourth-generation performer. Watching them perform, Niu decided she wanted to be dance.
“My mother said, ‘O.K., do you want to perform?” Niu said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I do.’ So they made me an acrobat.”
At the age of seven, in her home city of Taiyuan, 250 miles southwest of Beijing, she enrolled at a boarding school for acrobats. Niu said that the stunt is a traditional Chinese acrobat act, but slightly different, as it has been done with the bowls stacked inside each other, not rim to rim. Her father suggested a modification.
Niu tried flipping the bowls rim to rim, and they landed on top of her head, stacked, “and we were all shocked,” she said. “And then my dad just said ‘Keep on going’ until I got pretty stable with two bowls and then we practiced three and it added up.”
To put the whole act together – learning to ride a unicycle, to balance the bowls on her foot, held steady by her leg, to flip five bowls onto her head – took six or seven years, she said. With her father by her side, picking up bowls when they fell, she practiced seven hours a day. At times, she wanted to quit. When she enrolled, there were 40 students in her class, but just 10 when they graduated seven years later.
She was driven, she said, by the challenge of mastering the act and that, “if I do this, maybe I can be the first girl to do this.” She’s not sure if she is particularly gifted for it.
“I feel like if I can practice to do this, somebody else can practice to do it, too, if you put the time and work on it,” she said.
She began performing at 12 and traveled the world with the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe but moved to the U.S. in the 1980’s. She got a job performing at Disney World. After a little more than a year, she went independent. Niu declined to provide her age, and various stories written about her in the past differ with timelines. According to one ESPN story, she first performed at an NBA game in 1993.
The act is unforgettable. She climbs a ladder to get on her unicycle and places one bowl on her head to start. She then balances one bowl with her right foot and lower leg, her left foot pedaling back and forth. She kicks up her right foot, and the bowl flips into the bowl already on her head. With an assistant tossing her bowls, she does two, then three, then four and finally five. (Her record is six, but she stops at five in her show.) She pedals to a different corner of the floor for each turn, gesturing and smiling with a showman’s flair. Fans, many with phones out to record the act, roar their approval and amazement, the intensity increasing with each flip.
She estimated that this season, she has made it through her act without a drop about 80 percent of the time. Thursday, the final flip ended with five bowls clattering to the court. The arena cheered in encouragement and responded with even louder applause when she nailed her second chance. She said messing up is upsetting to her.
“It’s hard to control still,” she said.
Niu travels by herself, lugging her unicycle, bowls and outfits in two bags. It can be a lonely life, particularly for someone who seems as eager to engage as Niu. She calls home (she lives in San Francisco) to her mother and friends and makes conversation with people she meets in airports.
In 2012, she stopped performing to take care of her father, who had been diagnosed with cancer. He died in 2013. She began practicing again, but in 2014 broke her arm, the first time she had ever been injured in her act going back to childhood, and had to wait another year to return.
It is a life she scarcely could have for herself as a child, entertaining basketball fans in the U.S. But she has a job where she feels appreciated and that continues to challenge her.
“I love it,” Niu said. “It’s always a challenge. I like that feeling.”
She has seen more of the country than most Americans and has experienced its differences in culture throughout.
“From the bottom of my heart, America is very generous, a generous country,” Niu said. “Very forgiving people and very helpful a lot of times.”
And, in each arena she visits, supremely amazed.