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First Night winds up old year with song, dance and laughs

They came for the juggler. They came for balloons. They came for dancing and singing and handbell ringing and laughs.

Central Virginians of all ages flocked to downtown Charlottesville Tuesday to celebrate the 38th Annual First Night Virginia in one of the oldest First Night celebrations in the nation.

For some, it was their first. For others, it was the first time bringing their children and carrying on a tradition.

This year’s celebrations including singer-songwriter sets at The Front Porch, a bubble wrap stomp, balloon animals and an infectious dance groove put down by Chihamba, a nonprofit community group dedicated to the music and dance of traditional West African cultures.

The Mosaic Handbell Ensemble, Blue Ridge Irish Music School and Bent Theater Improv Comedy also provided entertainment for the New Year.

“I grew up in Charlottesville and we used to come to First Night. This is really the first year the kids will really be able to enjoy it,” said Kathy Phan, who, with her husband Michael Sty, brought their son Owen and daughter Olivia to join the festivities. “There are some things they really want to do and there’s some things we want to see.”

The family was serious about the evening, arranging to make a whole night of it by checking into the Omni Charlottesville Hotel.

“Rather than fight with traffic and be out late, we thought we’d stay down here,” Phan said. “That way we can just enjoy it.”

Owen got a head start on the experience by being pulled into the juggling act of Jesse Joyner. While he didn’t get to juggle machetes with the Richmond-based entertainer, he did toss rings to the man, getting kudos from the performer for his accuracy.

“No, I never met him before,” Owen insisted when asked if he was an audience plant. “I think it was all just a matter of luck.”

Standing in front of good crowd in the Omni’s ballroom and trying to accurately throw rings at Joyner was a bit intimidating, Owen admitted.

“I was a little nervous. I felt like I was going to throw up,” he said.

Olivia said she enjoyed the juggler but was looking forward to proving Boyle’s Law, which states that gas pressure increases as the volume of its container decreases. She planned to demonstrate the concept, first postulated in 1662, by applying her weight to air bubble packing materials in such as manner as to reduce volume and increase pressure until sudden and catastrophic failure of the bubble walls resulted in a satisfying ‘pop.’

“I want to go to the bubble wrap stomp,” she said. “I really want to do that, because, well, it’s bubble wrap!” she explained.

For John Rhea, of Palmyra Balloon Art, the night was about stretching Boyle’s Law to just short of the breaking point.

Rhea provided First Nighters with inflated pets from poodles to parrots, squirrels to the not-yet-extinct balloonisaurus rex.

“I’ve been doing this for fun since college when I bought a couple of books on making balloon animals and started playing around with them,” Rhea said, wearing a Medusa’s crown of what appeared to be tiny, party-colored tentacles. “I have a standard group of animals I make but I’m always willing to take on a challenge if there’s something they want to try.”

For 7-year-old Corrina Hood, that something was a balloon dog with a clear coat.

“I don’t know why. Because,” she said when asked the reasoning behind her choice. “Dogs are my second favorite animal. Cats are the first.”

Corrina said the balloon dog was not her first plastic confection.

“I’ve had them at the Farmer’s Market,” she said. “I’ve liked all of the ones I’ve had.”

For Corrina, the air dog would serve as her compatriot for the evening.

“I’m going to take it with me,” she said. “I want to see the juggler, too.”

The First Night revolution first began in Boston in 1976 as a way to bring neighboring communities together in celebration and provide a family-friendly way to usher in the New Year.

Charlottesville’s First Night Virginia followed six years later and has served as a model for more than 130 similar celebrations across the country.

“I grew up coming to First Night and I’ve performed here and my father performed here, so it’s a tradition,” said Michaux Hood, Corrina’s mother. “I saw it grow over the years and it’s gotten a little smaller over time, but it’s still fun and it’s still tradition. It’s a great experience.”


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