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Danielle Torley Dancing through Fire

By Tori Phelps | Photography courtesy of Danielle Torley

It’s the heat she remembers most from that February night. Even at six years old, Danielle Torley knew upon waking in the predawn darkness that Michigan winters didn’t—shouldn’t—feel this hot. She was right. By daybreak, the house fire would ravage her family, claiming her mother’s life, forcing her father to fight for his own during a month-long hospital stay, and ushering in a brutal new reality for Danielle and her little sister.

It’s the heat she remembers most from that February night. Even at six years old, Danielle Torley knew upon waking in the predawn darkness that Michigan winters didn’t—shouldn’t—feel this hot. She was right. By daybreak, the house fire would ravage her family, claiming her mother’s life, forcing her father to fight for his own during a month-long hospital stay, and ushering in a brutal new reality for Danielle and her little sister.

Young as she was, she understood the furious blaze for what it was: a thief. It had stolen her mother, most painfully, but it had also stolen the easy peace she took for granted. The last thing she expected was that, years later, fire would return that peace to her.

Danielle Torley, Fire Dancer
Photos by Dianna Berggren Photography

Wanderlust had grown like a weed during her childhood in a small Michigan town, prompting Danielle to take a backpacking trip through Central America with a friend one summer. Their first stop was Roatán, an island off the coast of Honduras. It was supposed to be a stopover of just a few days, but they fell in love with the island and ended up staying for three months. They quickly made friends, one of whom was a fire dancer who sparked in Danielle an immediate obsession with the beautiful art form.

She learned a few basics from her new pal and made homemade props like poi—a ball with a wick at the end of a chain—out of socks and shoelaces. It wasn’t until she returned home that she summoned the nerve to buy real props and actually light them. She recalls being both terrified and exhilarated.

“The sound of the flame as it whooshed past my head was incredibly loud and brought me right back to my childhood,” she says. “But the creative half of my brain was thinking, ‘I can’t believe it! I’m a fire dancer.’”

Quite by accident, she had created her own kind of “exposure therapy,” wherein she learned to coexist with and even enjoy what scared her. The nightmares that had plagued her since the fire finally stopped, she believes, because her dancing allowed her to control and manipulate fire. It was no longer in charge; she was.

Danielle Torley, Fire Dancer
Photos by Shanna Magnuson

Therapy wasn’t necessarily at the forefront of her mind when she picked up her props, however. Spinning (Danielle’s term for the dance technique) is not only an adrenaline rush, but a unique artistic expression. A natural fire dancer who grasped the movements quickly, she soon evolved into a performer whose art accompanied her around the world.

The urge to travel had never really left her, but its siren song got louder in her early twenties. After earning an international relations degree and spending a year in Austin with AmeriCorps, she was offered two jobs within the States and one in Dubai at roughly the same time. There was really no question. Danielle threw everything she owned into storage and hopped a plane for the Middle East.

The job—working for a British security company to provide personnel for embassies and other at-risk locations—brought her into the world of proposal coordination and business development. It also allowed her to explore fire dancing with others who shared her passion, ultimately turning it into a side job. “I reached out to a group of people who had recently started fire dancing together, and we realized there was a demand for fire dancers at hotels and for events like desert safaris,” she says.

“The next thing I knew we were putting together service agreements, doing choreography, getting costumes—everything just fell together.”

Because Dubai sits at the crossroads of Asia, Europe, and Africa, Danielle was able to take weekend trips to bucket-list locations such as Egypt, Jordan, and Israel, as well as traveling for her job. As is her habit, she strayed wildly from her predetermined time line, and a six-month plan turned into five years. It was only when she and her now-husband decided to plant roots back in the States that she was able to tear herself away. The two settled initially in the Washington, D.C., area and then in Destin, Florida.

Her fire dancing made the transitions too, and, as a nod to her new home on the Emerald Coast, she now performs as the Emerald Flame. But between a high-octane career as director of business development for a federal contractor and being the mother of three young children, it’s not easy to squeeze spinning into her schedule. She manages, though. In fact, she can’t seem to stay away. Even with an impressive list of hobbies like diving (she’s a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer) and triathlons, she always comes back to fire dancing. It’s accessible, thanks to LED light props she can use anywhere, as well as meditative. Plus, it’s just plain fun.

Danielle Torley, Fire Dancer
Photos by Shanna Magnuson

Looking back, she recognizes that fire dancing has been a vehicle for growth since she first witnessed spinners completely in charge of the flames in their hands. Fire itself was never her enemy, she says, citing contained forms like bonfires as an enjoyable part of her childhood. “It was the idea of uncontrolled fire that really terrified me,” she clarifies. “Fire dancing has been a long process of learning how to transform, evolve, and embrace my view of fire.”

Safety has always been a high priority for Danielle, as it must be for every spinner. She won’t say she’s never been hurt—an accident in Dubai injured her right hand—but she’s burned her hand using the oven more often than through fire dancing, she contends. Her confidence in its safety is so great that she’s teaching her children to spin (with unlit and LED props for now).

Danielle Torley, Fire Dancer
Photos by Shanna Magnuson

The story of a fire survivor who grows up to be a fire dancer is compelling enough that the TED Talk organization came calling last year. Danielle is a member of the Project Management Institute (PMI), an international association whose fiftieth anniversary celebration included partnering with TED Talks. Danielle later discovered that of the 1,200 PMI members who applied to present a TED Talk, she was one of only fourteen selected. Initially hesitant about whether such a personal story would be relevant to others, the preparation process illustrated that her hard-won lessons about pushing through pain were, indeed, universal.

“When you experience a tragedy, it’s so hard,” she says. “And there’s a choice between just surviving day to day and moving forward without being hindered by your fears.”

Not that fire dancing has magically erased all of the scars from that horrible night. She remembers far too many details in vivid color—from the stuffed animal she clutched as she crawled through the smoke-filled house to the stranger who climbed atop his car to pull her and her sister from a second-story awning to safety. To this day, Danielle prefers one-story houses, has never had a fireplace (the source of her family’s deadly fire), and clears a pathway between her family’s bedrooms and an exit every night before bed, just in case they have to get out quickly.

But feeling the fear and pushing ahead anyway, a choice she continues to make daily, has helped her turn the ashes of grief into a life of meaning and happiness. Her trajectory hasn’t always been a straight line, she admits, and she cautions others in pain to expect days or weeks or months when fear and doubt may be winning. “Sometimes there is deep despair,” she says of the journey through trauma. “But there’s also real joy.”

— V —

Visit Facebook.com/EmeraldFlameDance to learn more about Emerald Flame or to book a performance for your next event.

Tori Phelps has been a journalist and writer for twenty-five years. A longtime VIE collaborator, Tori is committed to storytelling that honors the subject matter and inspires the reader. She lives, reads, and bakes vegan biscuits with her family in Charleston, South Carolina.

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