Acrobat Krystal Niu, better known as Red Panda, has been performing her unicycle bowl-flipping act at halftime shows for more than two decades, and over the past few years, she has amassed a cult following among diehard fans and sportswriters.
Her act is relatively simple, but incredible. She rides a unicycle seven feet off the ground, balances with one foot, and uses the other to flip bowls onto her head, which somehow she manages to stack perfectly.
At the end of January, Red Panda made news when someone stole her unicycle at San Francisco International Airport. Thankfully, the Golden State Warriors stepped in to buy her a new one, but it needs to be custom built, and she won’t have it until the summer. In the meantime, she’s using one she put together herself, using parts of old unicycles that she had gone through over the years. It took some getting used to, but as she has performed with this replacement more, she has been able to cut down on mistakes — not that her act isn’t still amazing, even with a couple dropped bowls.
Red Panda was in New York in March, bouncing between the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden and the ACC Tournament at Barclays Center. On Friday, she took a few minutes to chat about her act, her unicycle, and more.
I know you’ve been doing this for decades, but how did you start? What was the training process like to go from zero to five bowls on your head?
I’m a fourth-generation acrobat, so my dad is the one who taught me. First I had to learn how to balance the bowls. My dad put one bowl on my head and asked me to balance and walk around. Subconsciously, I just didn’t have to think about it. I was able to do other things. Then at the same time, I was learning to flip the bowls. To put one down on my foot and try to flip and catch, then try to make them turn the way that I want them to turn. Then I had to learn the unicycle. After I got better, I put them all together. That way it’s easier to learn everything at the same time.
How do you prepare on a day you’re going to perform?
First I will set up the unicycle. I’ll do some stretching, and right before the halftime starts, I will like to be alone for a few minutes so I can get focused. I still feel nervous even though I’m trained.
What part of your act is the most difficult?
Flipping is, definitely. Learning the unicycle takes about two months, and then it takes another couple months to learn to do it on one leg, back and forth, back and forth. But flipping bowls takes the longest for me.
You’re up seven feet in the air when you do this. Do you ever get scared?
Definitely. At the beginning, I was riding unicycles two and a half feet high. Then, once you get better, you change the height. After riding like a year or two, you don’t feel the fear any more. You’re getting used to it. But then a few years ago, I fell and broke my arm. That made me feel that fear again. But after a while, you get over that.
When you broke your arm, that’s around the time there were rumors that you were going to retire, right?
Well first it was my dad, who died. I was taking care of him for 11 months before he passed away. Then, I had to take care of my mom. They were together forever. I had to take care of her. Then I said, “Oh my God, I haven’t practiced for a year now. I have to go practice.” I got so distracted because of my mom, my dad, I shouldn’t have done it so soon, and I fell off. I was in a cast for 10 months without practice. Then I heard on the internet they said I retired, but that wasn’t the whole story.
I know you recently had your unicycle stolen as well, but you’ll be getting a new one. How will that differ from what you’re using right now?
This one is from my old ones. The broken ones. I put them together. It has to be exactly the same as the other one because my leg length cannot change. It determines the size. Maybe if a new person started learning, they could get used to it. But for me it’s really hard to change because I used that precise length. It determines how far the wheel should go, how far for me to pull back, and that gives me the strength to flip the bowls. Five bowls goes almost to my knees, and that one has to go all the way on top of the other bowls. That’s a lot of strength to go up, which means I need the unicycle to be able to support me. I have to pull it back while catching.
I know you were just in Brooklyn. What’s your schedule from here?
I’m in Raleigh, North Carolina for the Hurricanes. After Raleigh, I will go to St. Louis for the Southeastern Conference. Then there’s something with ESPN in Hartford.
What’s your favorite place that you’ve performed?
Every court is the same, so anywhere I perform, I love it. I enjoy performing. I like LA, the Staples Center. Definitely Madison Square Garden, because there’s so much history and it’s so unique. It’s a beautiful, old building.