The Brooklyn Nets’ trampoline dunk crew brought down the house in the first game of the ACC Tournament Quarterfinals at Barclay’s Center, but in game two, they were fans in the crowd just like everyone else.
As the clock counted down to the start of play, the dunk crew rushed into the tunnel, starstruck, for the chance to meet the biggest halftime star in the business—Red Panda Chinese acrobat.
Her real name is Rong Niu, and she also goes by Krystal, but for basketball fans across the country, the five-foot, fortysomething woman is known by her stage—er court—name, Red Panda.
The act is impossible to describe for those who haven’t seen it. She rides an eight-foot unicycle around the court and flips bowls from her foot onto her head. And the crowd goes wild.
Raleigh & Company spoke to her shortly after she performed at Cameron Indoor Stadium, by phone, from her home in San Francisco. She wasn’t happy about her Duke performance.
“I dropped a bowl,” she said. Then she said in a near growl, “I hate that.”
The most common question people have for the Panda is why, followed by how.
“I’m a fourth-generation acrobat,” she explained. Her mother was a bowl flipper, as was her grandmother and great grandmother. Niu just put her own twist on it.
“In China, it’s very common,” she said, “but usually, performers flip bowls onto each other’s head. When my father saw I could flip them onto my own …”
The rest, as they say, is halftime history.
Niu started working on her unique set of skills at age seven.
“The hardest part was putting it all together,” she said.
At first, she worked on bowl flipping separately from unicycle work. That was the easy part. “I’d say that, standing on the ground, within six months, a person could get to about 90 percent accuracy catching bowls,” she said.
The bowls are custom-made.
“My father designed them,” she said. “He came up with a size and dimensions for the one I use to catch them (a bowl with a wide base that is different than the ones she flips) and the flipping bowls. He eventually found what worked and built a mold. We didn’t have a lot of money, so the first ones were made of plastic. Now I use metal.”
In her act, she catches one bowl, then two, then keeps adding bowls until she gets to five. That’s a tower of 16 bowls, balanced on the top of her skull by the end of her show. “I’d balance cinder blocks on my head (while cycling) to get used to the weight,” she said.
Finally, she was ready to put it all together, and by age 11, she hit the Chinese acrobat circuit. She quickly became a popular performer and began to travel internationally.
“While we were in the United States on a tour, I was approached by someone from Disney,” she said. They signed her up to perform at the Chinese pavilion at Epcot. All she had was an act and an outgoing personality.
“At first, I didn’t speak any English and didn’t know anyone,” she said. “But I would go out and meet with people after the show, just to shake hands with them.”
She picked up the language and eventually found a new career direction.
“I was talking to people after my show and someone gave me a business card,” she said. It was a talent scout, looking for new NBA halftime acts.
“My first game was a Sacramento Kings game,” she recalled.
With many of her early bookings on the West Coast, Panda moved to San Francisco. She still returns there in between gigs during the season, although the job keeps her on the go. One venue that hired her said that she earns between $2,500 and $3,000 per gig, plus travel.
“I don’t know how many halftimes I do,” she said. “As an independent performer, it varies a great deal.”
While basketball is her bread and butter, she’s performed her act in a variety of odd venues, including the America’s Got Talent stage1
She’s also performed at baseball stadiums. The Durham Bulls put plywood down on the ballpark turf between innings to give her a flat surface on which to cycle.
“I think the strangest place I’ve done my act would have to be a hockey game,” she said. “They put a red carpet down on the ice, and I rode around on that.”
A few years ago, the number of halftimes fell to zero, as Red Panda left the circuit. Rumors ran rampant over the reason—She’d announced her retirement. She’d blown out a knee in a fall.
All of them were untrue.
“My father was sick,” she said. “So I took some time off to be with him.”
After two bouts of espophageal cancer, Niu’s father passed away in 2014, at the age of 75.
“My mother also got sick at the same time,” she recalled. Her mother passed away a short time later.
Niu spent about two years away from performing, first caring for her parents, then grieving. Finally, she returned to the hardwood for the 2015-16 season.
“I love it so much,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where I am. I don’t have a favorite arena or anything. I just love performing for a crowd.”
Like the halftime at Cameron, Red Panda missed on five bowls in her ACC Tournament performance, then nailed it on the second try to wild applause. Her personal record is six bowls, although she’s not consistent enough to go to six in the act yet.
The travel, physical demands, and, yes, danger involved with her act virtually guarantee that she won’t be able to do it forever. She has no plans to slow down anytime soon, however.
“I feel great,” she said. “I love doing it. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to do it.”
After a short pause, she laughed and added, “I think for awhile longer, though.”
- She made the show, then withdrew after her parents got ill. ↩