With Help From MIT Engineer, Marathon Bombing Survivor Dances Again

Update at 6 p.m.: Here’s Adrianne Haslet-Davis, dancing on her bionic leg:

Marathon bombing victim Adrianne Haslet-Davis dances at the TED Conference in Vancouver on Wednesday. (James Duncan Davidson/TED via Flickr)

Marathon bombing victim Adrianne Haslet-Davis dances at the TED Conference in Vancouver on Wednesday. (James Duncan Davidson/TED via Flickr)

And here’s what she said, in part, in a statement:

I’m thrilled to have danced again. It was invigorating to dance publicly with my new leg, but also to realize that my return to dance may have the power to inspire other people to reach for their goals and be proactive in their lives. I was always determined to dance again, and I knew that I had to, that I would, and here I am. My first dance happening to be so near the anniversary of the marathon bombing stands as a reminder that I’m a survivor, not a victim.

Earlier feature:

Sitting perfectly poised with her legs crossed, 33-year-old Adrianne Haslet-Davis played with the gold rings on her fingers while recalling the physical and mental challenges she’s been dealing with since losing her lower left leg while watching the Boston Marathon almost a year ago.

“When something is that big a part of your life — like dancing is — it’s the only thing you want to do to make yourself feel better,” Haslet-Davis explained. “And it’s the only thing I couldn’t do.”

MIT's Hugh Herr gives his TED talk at the 2014 conference in Vancouver. (Ryan Lash/TED)

MIT’s Hugh Herr gives his TED talk. He has been a double amputee since a climbing accident in 1982. He went on to revolutionize prostheses at MIT. (Ryan Lash/TED)

In the months after the bombing near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Haslet-Davis says she couldn’t even listen to music. “All I would do … is choreograph and imagine myself dancing,” she said. “And it was just complete torture.”

But on Wednesday, Haslet-Davis will take the stage at the 2014 TED conference in Vancouver wearing a prosthetic leg “fit for dancing.” Hugh Herr, director of biomechatronics at MIT’s Media Lab, designed it specifically for Haslet-Davis after they met at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.

“After meeting her I was driving home and I thought, ‘Well gosh, I’m an MIT professor, why not build her a bionic limb to allow her to dance?’ So I put together MIT scientists with expertise in prosthetics, robotics, machine-learning, bio-mechanics, and off we went.”

Herr himself has been a double amputee since a climbing accident in 1982. He went on to revolutionize prostheses at MIT. After the marathon bombing, the engineer wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal assuring Haslet-Davis she would dance again.

Since Herr is unveiling the bionic leg Wednesday, he didn’t want to give away too many details. But the goal was to design a natural, nuanced limb, responsive to Haslet-Davis’s body movements.

“We brought in dancers with biological limbs that were a similar size and weight,” the engineer explained. “And we studied, using all of our equipment, how they moved and the forces they applied on the dance floor and analyzed those data. It took many, many months, but here we are.”

It’ll be a huge moment for Haslet-Davis, especially, she said, because the anniversary of the bombing has been dominating her thoughts.

“And it’s such mixed emotions, day by day, minute by minute even sometimes. But I don’t want to say I didn’t put a time frame on it. I hoped it would happen within a year,” she admitted.

Haslet-Davis said she’ll wear a very short dress on stage to show off her bionic leg. And even though she’ll only dance for about 30 seconds, she admits she’s nervous.

“I’m very nervous to dance on stage again, but I have said from the beginning that I don’t like to be called a victim. I like to be called a survivor, because a victim is someone that still belongs to the crime, and I am not going to be defined by that,” she said. “I want to be defined by how I live my life, and how I live my life is wanting to go out there and conquer fear. So I’ll get out on that stage and hopefully nail it, and if not I’ll be stronger next time.”

The next time will likely be on “Dancing with the Stars.” Haslet-Davis says she’s working on dates for that show. For now, though, she’ll be doing the rumba to Enrique Iglesias’ “Ring My Bells.”

Update 3/28: TED has released video of the Herr’s talk and Haslet-Davis’ performance. She takes the stage about 17 minutes in:

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on wbur.org.
  • Marie

    Ms. Haslet-Davis’s attitude and strength are inspiring, as is Professor Herr’s initiative. I LOVE that he decided that he would be able to do it, and he did it. And though it was described as taking many many months, it has been less than one year, and to me, that is incredible. Awesome all the way around – thanks for sharing!

  • CircusMcGurkus

    Can there be any better definition of Boston Strong than this collaboration and determination? What a testament to everything good in the world following an event demonstrating everything bad in the world! The great Martha Graham said that dancing is discovery, discovery, discovery – may you discover all the days of your life.

    • RobMcMahon

      You mean Boston Weak and Scared….after all you let ONE person terrorize your whole city….

      • jscia2

        Projecting (verb): A maladaptive defense mechanism, where the individual places emotionally unacceptable aspects of the self onto others.

        • Jim

          With the exception that the entire world saw this fact on TV. 1 Guy shut your entire city down..

          • jscia2

            Folie a Deux (noun): When two or more individuals share the same delusion.

          • Jim

            Again, except the media displayed this cowardice, on display, with video proof. The delusion is yours due to the fact that superior evidence is present and historically recorded.

          • jscia2

            Echolalia (noun); A type of thought disorganization when one repeats words just spoken.

          • fosrs?

            1) 2 people, at least. 2) at the biggest event this city has 3) it didnt shut down anything. I know because I live here and Dunkies was still open the whole time. So was my job, incidentally. The only time we were kept inside was when our university required it (because they can) and THAT was when the suspect was literally throwing explosives out of his car in the area. So I mean, it seemed reasonable to me.

            In conclusion, Jim, the delusion is yours. Boston was awesome through this whole thing and all you could see was people helping each other through the whole experience. If anything, the city came alive.

          • Jim


            Psychosis is a symptom or feature of mental illness typically characterized by … a distorted or nonexistent sense of objective reality.





            I had an entire office of people in Boston that day and the entire place was shut down like it was suspended in time.

          • jscia2

            Overcompensation (noun): A conscious or unconscious process in which a real or imagined physical or psychological deficit generates exaggerated correction

          • Jim

            Behavioral confirmation The process by which people behave in ways that elicit from others specific expected reactions and then use those reactions to confirm their beliefs.

            Cognitive dissonance The theory that the tension-producing effects of incongruous cognition’s motivate individuals to reduce such tension.

            Conformity The tendency for people to adopt the behaviors, attitudes, and values of other members of a reference group

            Conditioned stimulus (CS) In classical conditioning, a previously neutral stimulus that comes to elicit a conditioned response.

            Date rape Unwanted sexual violation by a social acquaintance in the context of a consensual dating situation. (*and you may ask yourself what this has to do with anything.. well, it’s what your government is doing to you so long as you consent to the type of relationship you have with it…metaphorically speaking of course).

            Groupthink The tendency of a decision-making group to filter out undesirable input so that a consensus may be reached, especially if it is in line with the leader’s viewpoint.

            So keep telling yourselves that what happened in Boston was “OK” and that everything will be fine while they raided homes and violated you on countless civil rights abuses.

            But it’s ok.. you’ll just throw some psychology terms out there… yeah.. classic defensive posturing. You can go through the entire Conversion, Denial, Displacement,projection,repression and undoing steps in classic Freudian theory or you can just address the fact that the government has made you toothless.

          • jscia2

            Flight of Ideas (verb): Pressured form of speech where an individual jumps from one idea to the next. Typical of manic episodes.

          • Jim

            I’m sorry you can’t put it all together, perhaps you should look up denial again?

          • jscia2

            Egocentric Bias (noun): Recalling the past in a self-serving manner.

          • Jim

            Argumentum ad hominem
            Argumentum ad nauseam


          • jscia2

            Termination (noun): The mutual agreement between patient and therapist to bring therapy to an end.
            My bill will be in the mail. I do not take Mass Health.

          • Jim

            Don’t forget your ball.

          • jscia2

            No Jim, you keep it. It appears you need it more than me. Maybe you can store it with the others you feel the need to take, whilst your finger wags from the pulpit.

    • CircusMcGurkus

      The comment eliciting all of these kind-of-off-topic comments was about a dancer dancing again after a senseless life altering injury. I live in Boston. No one here was weak though many were scared because we saw beautiful young lives cut short and others changed forever due to a criminal act. I challenge anyone not to feel scared and confused and distraught and somber after such an incomprehensible crime.

      No one person terrorized Boston – two people allegedly (though this word is merely for legal reasons) set off bombs at a world class event designed to kill and maim as many people as they could. Boston hosts the Marathon welcoming people from all over the world as we celebrate great personal and professional achievement. To have something so joyful marred by such violence (on a day we are otherwise celebrating American triumph and spirit) would send anyone and anyplace reeling for ourselves, sure, but much, much more for the survivors, their families and friends and the families and friends of the victims.

      Those of us who are local are pretty proud of our neighbors and our city for NOT feeling terrorized but instead coming together collectively to mourn and move forward. How many of us would have the courage, grace and grit to dance again after this kind of injury as evidenced by Ms. Haslet-Davis? That is what this comment was about. As to Boston Strong – yeah, we are. And Proud and Welcoming and Grateful to all of the runners who fell over themselves signing up for this year’s Marathon, and all of the volunteers working to make this year’s event successful and our public officials and law enforcement for figuring out ways to keep the most famous marathon of modern days open to the public and safe for all, refusing to be cowed and refusing to let any one person take this event from its rightful place on the world stage.

      So it stands – and dances with confidence and awe at the human spirit – Ms. Haslet-Davis (and Mr. Herr) is a testament to Boston Strong. She is in great company with another survivor expecting his first child and another embracing life with her new partner, the NEADS-trained dog named Rescue and another tiny survivor thriving despite the loss of her brother and buddy and part of her leg and all the others, injured and families of the injured and killed, who are bravely living lives they never anticipated with dignity and tenacity and grace beyond imagination. They comprise the image in our minds when we think or say “Boston Strong”.

  • Lawrence

    Now that, ladies and gentleman, is strength, courage, determination and inspiration all wrapped up in one amazing lady.

    • makayli verran

      My Uncle Caleb just got red Ford Focus ST by working off of
      a computer. try this C­a­s­h­D­u­t­i­e­s­.­ℂ­o­m

  • Bo Tye

    Since each of us knows so little, and because it is impossible to know who among us knows best, we trust the competitive efforts of many to lead us toward new and better ways of doing things.

  • Derrick Rows

    Although the natural pecking order of a free country may appear callous, if we are to advance, then some must lead and the rest will follow.

Most Popular