Those who frequent the many festivals, parties, and beach events that dot the social calendar along Florida’s Scenic Highway 30A may have seen Danielle Torley at work. As the founder and principal at Emerald Flame, the fire dancer is in demand to bring a sense of danger, adventure, and glamor to any festivity.
“Fire performance is a fun, glamorous, and artistic form of entertainment for any event or area, but it goes hand-in-hand with the beach and complements the entire Panhandle,” said Danielle.
Watching as the flames are manipulated into artistic displays, partygoers will be even more in awe when they hear the emotional backstory behind Danielle’s discovery of her passion.
Danielle’s life was turned upside down by fire at an early age. As a six-year-old in Michigan, she lost her mother in a tragic house fire.
Her father suffered burns to more than a third of his body, requiring surgery and skin grafts, and Danielle and her sister were only saved by the bravery and actions of a kind passer-by who helped the girls escape from a second-floor window.
“The years which followed the fire were tough,” said Danielle. “As a single dad raising two young daughters, he did his best to support us as we grew, and as we grieved.”
Slowly, the torn-apart family moved forward. “We moved into a new house, my father remarried, and my sister and I excelled at school,” said Daniel. “She rode horses and played in the band, and I was a cheerleader. Outwardly, we had ‘recovered,’ but nothing could stop the nightmares.”
“Dreams of fire, being trapped, or looking on helplessly haunted me,” recalled Danielle.
Then, in high school, a friend of Danielle’s painted two portraits as part of an art project. “One was in black and white, with a girl cowering in the corner. The other a blast of color with the girl in the center and brimming with joy,” recalled said Danielle. “My friend knew me well, what I was going through, but he wanted to show me how he saw me. I realized the two portraits were really pathways ahead: fear or hope. I chose hope.”
Fast forward to 2004, Danielle and a friend were backpacking in Central America. One of the friends they made along the way told them he was a fire dancer and asked if they would like to see a show.
“We watched mesmerized as he and two friends lit these props on fire and swirled them around their bodies. Their movements were deliberate and controlled, yet graceful and rhythmic. I was entranced.”
Over the next few months, Danielle and her friend practiced to the flow of music – but without fire – the art of spinning, moving the props, staffs, and fire poi, the balls on chains controlled by the fingers. Danielle knew this was something she wanted to continue, and she hoped, one day, to be brave enough to try it with fire.
When they finally took the plunge to light the poi, Danielle was terrified.
“Part of me was saying ‘stop,’ but the creative part of my brain was exhilarated. It was an adrenaline rush as I realized, I’m a fire dancer! There was a great sense of control, which for someone traumatized, was empowering,” Danielle recalled. “Fire went from something I was apprehensive about to something that strangely brought me peace.”
Eventually mastering the art, Danielle started her own fire dance troupe.
When people first hear of the trauma Danielle suffered, they are curious. “Why do you do this? Why aren’t you terrified and running in the opposite direction?” they ask.
“I don’t know the answer,” she said. “Perhaps partly because I did cheer, piano, gymnastics – they are all very disciplined, precise, structured, and prescribed. This was ‘flow,’ more like a form of meditation, but with a focus on fire – this thing that so deeply scared me.”
Now, settled along the Emerald Coast, Danielle runs her successful business doing what she was once terrified by.
“After moving back to the States (from Dubai), I decided to focus on my family and career and took a step back from events and fire performing,” said Danielle. “But after being in Destin for a year, I reached out to Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort in Miramar Beach to inquire whether they were interested in a fire performer for their luaus. The rest is history.”
Now, living at the beach, with her business well established, she spends her time making people’s beach adventures and family get-togethers more memorable.
“It’s tough to balance my day job with fire performance and my family, but I enjoy the performance aspect, and I love being able to show my children that they do not need to choose only one thing to ‘be’ when they grow up.”
Emerald Flame performers can be hired for parties and private events in the 30A area.
“I love to collaborate with other performers, working with friends in the area to support each other in our training and performances,” said Danielle.
Danielle’s story, of course, is her personal response to the terrible events that occurred that evening in Michigan.
“Not everybody could, or should, have the same reaction,” she said. “I realize that. But what I can say from my own experience is that you have two paths to choose. Either you let the trauma and grief remain, clinging to the grief and sadness, which may, in a way, provide comfort. Or you can step out of the grief. It doesn’t undo the trauma and hardship. It will always be hard with highs and lows, but this path moves forward. For me, fire – with its trauma, beauty and art all at once – became a metaphor for life itself.”