Danielle Torley: I stepped out of grief -- by dancing with fire

Recorded atSeptember 25, 2020
Duration (min:sec)12:47
Video TypeTED Institute Talk
Words per minute193.87 fast
Readability (FK)62.06 easy
SpeakerDanielle Torley

Official TED page for this talk


After losing her mother in a house fire when she was just six years old, Danielle Torley saw two paths before her: a life full of fear, or one that promised healing and recovery. In this inspiring talk, she describes how she turned her grief into beauty in a most unexpected way -- by dancing with fire.

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100:13 When I was six years old, our house caught fire, and my mother died.
200:19 It was a cold February night in Michigan.
300:21 Our chimney had recently been fixed, so we had a warm fire going in the fireplace.
400:26 My younger sister and I were sitting next to our dog and coloring with a brand-new box of colored pencils, when Mom said it was time for bed.
500:33 We'd planned to go up north that night for a weekend of snowmobiling and sledding, but it was already dark and snowing outside, so we decided to leave the next morning instead.
600:43 We went upstairs, brushed our teeth, climbed into bed, my sister's room right next to the stairs, and mine at the far end of the hallway.
700:50 Our parents tucked us in and kissed us good night then left the door open just a crack, and the hallway light on, as it always was.
800:58 In the middle of the night, I woke up sweating, confused because I couldn't see that hallway light.
901:05 I started shouting for my parents until finally, I heard words that I'll never forget: "Dave, it's a fire!"
1001:12 We later found out that our fire from earlier had burned through an unrepaired crack in the chimney, causing the fireplace doors to explode and fire to just pour into the living room.
1101:22 I remember my mom running down to my sister's room, frantically searching for her and finally finding her on the floor.
1201:30 I crawled after her on my hands and knees, trying not to breathe in the smoke.
1301:35 I remember standing next to my sister's room, trying to turn on that hallway light, but it was already on; I just couldn't see it because the smoke was so thick.
1401:46 I remember feeling the heat of the fire on my skin and hearing the sound of it as it climbed up the stairs.
1501:55 My dad ran down to my bedroom window as an escape route, but it was February, and it was frozen shut.
1602:02 Eventually, he broke the window and pried it open, his arms and hands covered in glass and cuts.
1702:09 He lifted my sister and me onto an awning under the window and told us to shout for help.
1802:15 Not seeing my mom, he considered going back into the fire to find her, but after looking at my sister and me huddled together on that roof and knowing that neither of them may make it out, he stayed with us, calling her name through the window instead.
1902:32 After a few minutes, a man driving down the street saw the smoke and fire, drove onto our lawn, climbed onto the roof of his car and told us to jump into his arms.
2002:42 We'd never seen him before, and even though he saved our lives, we never saw him again.
2102:47 We were brought over to a neighbor's house while Dad continued to wait on the roof for my mom, reaching his arms and hands through the window and into the fire, calling her name over and over.
2203:00 He said later that when the fire department arrived, they carried him down the ladder just as a lower-level window shattered and burst into flames.
2303:08 It took the fire department longer to find my mom.
2403:11 She'd been on the floor of my bedroom the entire time, pinned down by a dresser that had fallen on her leg.
2503:18 We think she went back to look for our dog, but by the time the fire department reached them it was too late.
2603:25 She died on the way to the hospital.
2703:29 Dad was in critical condition, with smoke inhalation and burns and cuts over a third of his body.
2803:35 He spent nearly a month in the hospital, unable to attend Mom's funeral and undergoing multiple, excruciating skin graft surgeries.
2903:44 My sister and I stayed with a neighbor across the street, but we would sit in front of their living room window for hours, just staring at the remains of our burnt home.
3003:54 After a few days, it became evident that we would need to go and stay with some different family friends.
3104:00 The next few years were tough.
3204:03 As a single father of two young girls, Dad did his very best to provide for us as we all tried to grieve and recover.
3304:11 We began to move on in this new reality.
3404:14 Dad bought a new house down the street, without a fireplace, and eventually remarried.
3504:20 My sister and I excelled in school.
3604:22 I was a cheerleader, and she rode horses and played in the band.
3704:26 But nothing could stop the gut-wrenching nightmares that haunted me.
3804:31 I would dream of fire, of being trapped in fire with no escape.
3904:35 I remember, and even now I can feel, the sheer panic and the pressure in my chest.
4004:41 Or worse were the dreams where I was outside the fire watching it, trying to save the people inside.
4104:49 I'd wake up gasping for breath, tears running down my face and sobbing.
4204:58 When I was 15, a friend of mine and a very talented artist, painted two abstract portraits for me.
4305:05 One was done in black and white and depicted a scared girl cowering in the corner of a room, shadows surrounding her.
4405:12 The other was a bursting rainbow of color; the girl was in the center of the page, arms open and outstretched, clearly full of joy and happiness.
4505:21 He knew my past, and he knew that I was conflicted and confused, but he had also seen my potential and wanted to show me what he already saw.
4605:31 After a few years, I realized that these two portraits showed two completely different paths before me: a life of fear or the promise and potential for recovery.
4705:42 I had always been drawn to that brighter, more colorful painting, but I wasn't quite sure what it meant for me or how to transform my current mentality into that kind of joy and happiness.
4805:52 So outwardly, I moved on with life -- graduated high school, went to college -- while inwardly, I continued to bounce between the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, like a Ping-Pong ball between those two portraits.
4906:08 In 2004, I went backpacking through Central America with a friend.
5006:12 We spent our first week on the island of Roatán, off the coast of Honduras.
5106:15 After a few days there, my friend and I realized that one of our new local friends was a fire dancer.
5206:21 Neither of us had ever seen fire dancing before, so one night, we decided to go see a show.
5306:28 We watched, mesmerized, as he and two friends lit these props on fire, threw them in the air and spun them around their bodies.
5406:41 Their moves were deliberate and controlled, yet still graceful and flowing to the music.
5506:50 I was completely entranced.
5606:53 The next day, he offered to teach us how to fire dance, or "spin" -- without fire, of course.
5706:58 He showed us the difference between a fire staff, which is a long piece of wood or aluminum with two Kevlar wicks, and fire poi, which are Kevlar wicks with chains and finger loops.
5807:10 After that first time spinning poi, I knew that this was a hobby that I wanted to continue learning in the hopes that maybe one day, I might be brave enough to try it with fire.
5907:23 Now, I can guess what people might be thinking: How was I not terrified and running in the opposite direction?
6007:30 And honestly, I don't know.
6107:32 I think that perhaps being a cheerleader and doing gymnastics and piano while growing up, these activities were very structured and prescribed, whereas this type of flow art seemed like a form of meditation but with a focus on fire, this thing that scared me so deeply for my entire life.
6207:50 After that first time practicing, my friend and I cobbled together our own sets of homemade poi using socks, shoelaces and tennis balls.
6307:57 We did not light shoelaces and socks on fire, we just used it for the practice part.
6408:02 But after returning home to Michigan, we decided to buy our own sets of actual fire poi.
6508:07 And after a few months, we decided that we were ready to light them on fire.
6608:12 We bundled up in cotton layers, got a fire extinguisher, wet a towel for safety, prepared our fuel, gave each other a very energetic pep talk and high five and lit those poi on fire.
6708:27 It was terrifying.
6808:31 Half of my brain was freaking out and thinking, "OK, wait -- maybe we need to think about this.
6908:36 We should probably stop."
7008:38 The sound of the fire as it whooshed by my head was incredibly loud and brought me right back to my childhood.
7108:44 But it was also incredibly exhilarating.
7208:49 The other half of my brain, the creative half, was thinking, "I can't believe it! I'm a fire dancer."
7308:57 For anyone who spins, there's a level of adrenaline or that rush of fire dancing.
7409:02 But as someone whose life had been so greatly impacted by fire, I also felt an immense sense of empowerment at being able to control and manipulate fire.
7509:14 I made a conscious decision to step out of my grief.
7609:18 It was not easy.
7709:19 There's a Nirvana lyric that says "I miss the comfort of being sad," and that was exactly it.
7809:24 I was in control of my sadness.
7909:27 I knew what it would bring to me, and I knew what to expect, but I also knew deep down that eventually, I had to do that really hard work of trying to heal from my past.
8009:37 So I kept practicing.
8109:39 I took a plastic grocery bag, cut it into strips, tied it to the ends of those poi and used it to replicate the sound of the fire as it went past my head.
8209:48 And I kept lighting the poi on fire.
8309:51 At some point, something shifted.
8409:54 My perspective on fire dancing changed from something that I was apprehensive about to something that brought me a sort of peace.
8510:03 Without realizing it, I had initiated my own form of exposure therapy, an actual type of psychotherapy where you deliberately expose yourself to things that have caused you trauma or scare you.
8610:15 I'd exposed myself to fire in this very unique way and had transformed what it meant to me.
8710:22 My nightmares slowed down and now, years later, have stopped almost completely.
8810:28 I started fire dancing not just for myself but at events and performances.
8910:32 I started a fire troop with friends while living in Dubai, created beautiful art with my sister who became a photographer, taught children how to spin at birthday parties, performed onstage and at festivals and even taught my own children the basics of spinning.
9010:49 And that's not to say that I don't still have an apprehension to fire in general.
9110:53 I can practice a move a million times, but then when I try it with fire, I feel that familiar panic and tightening in my chest.
9211:01 I'm still apprehensive about living in a two-story house or having a fireplace.
9311:07 Every night before I go to sleep, I clear a path between my kids' bedroom doors, our bedroom door and all the exit doors, in case we need to leave quickly.
9411:16 And it's taken me a long time to get on board with the idea of closing bedroom doors at night to slow down a fire, because I'd always thought if I closed my kids' bedroom doors, I might not be able to hear them like my mom heard me.
9511:31 And of course, this is my story.
9611:33 I can't say that I have the answer for someone with a different kind of trauma.
9711:38 If the situation had been reversed, and I'd lost a child in a fire, I'm not sure that fire dancing would be the answer, or if I'd even have the capacity to get near fire again.
9811:48 But what I can say from my own experience is that after experiencing a trauma or hardship, you have a choice between two paths.
9911:56 One path will lead you to a life of fear and cowering in the darkness, like that black-and-white painting I described earlier.
10012:03 You might move on with life, but at the same time, you're still clinging to that sadness that brings you comfort.
10112:09 The other path, stepping out of grief, will not change or undo anything.
10212:15 It will be hard.
10312:17 It will always be hard, with high mountains and deep, dark valleys.
10412:24 But this path looks forward and moves forward.
10512:28 When I learned to dance with fire, I learned to reconcile the traumatic part of my life with the totality of my life as it was still unfolding.
10612:38 Fire became more than just trauma but beauty and art as well, everything, all at once, just like life, flickering and smoldering and burning and dazzling, and somehow, in the middle of it, finding a way to dance ... me.
10712:58 Thank you.