When she was 14, Gabi Rojas worked up the nerve to dance in front of her entire school. It was an African-themed performance inspired by the exultant moment in “The Lion King” when the lion Simba triumphantly returns to his welcoming pride.

It was a jubilant moment for Rojas, too, who received a standing ovation and rousing cheers. Only two years earlier, the teenager had been diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA) and had been firmly urged by her doctor to give up dancing.

“She did not believe that dancing could be beneficial for me. She said, ‘You’re going to have to stop dancing,’” Rojas, now 25, recalls. “I looked at my mom and started crying. I couldn’t stop dancing. Dancing was everything to me. It was my soul.”

Gabi was born into a life of dance. Because her mom was a trapeze acrobat, she grew up in the circus. By 5, she was part of the clown parade doing cartwheels during the gala opening procession. By 7, she had learned stylistic tricks on a static trapeze.

The circus life ended a year later when her mom retired and moved to Albuquerque, N.M., to teach dancing, her first love. Rojas, who was home-schooled, followed her mother along from class to class watching – and sometimes even participating in – hundreds of dance classes. “I’d sit there in class and watch all the dancing. I was so inspired by the passion,” she says.

Dancing became her life.

‘Everything’ Began to Hurt

At 12, not long after enrolling in traditional school, Gabi noticed that her right index finger was swollen. Her mom thought maybe she was pressing too hard on her pencil when she wrote. When her pinky finger also began to swell, they went to their family doctor. After ruling out lupus, tests came back positive for JRA. “I had no idea what that meant. I just knew everything hurt,” she says.