Rojas combated pain and swelling that kept her up at night, trying to find some comfort in a mound of pillows. She often went to school in a wheelchair. In winter, her mother heated her clothes in the dryer each morning, hoping the heat would ease the ache. She tried a steady stream of medications including hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil), rofecoxib (Vioxx) and sulfasalazine (Azulfidine) until finally a combination of prednisone and methotrexate began to help the pain subside.

At 14, she began to dance again, and created her school dance routine. “I was just doing creative movement, listening to music and interpreting it the way I could and however much I could move,” she says. If her movement was limited, her audience never knew. Their applause signaled a change for her.

“That was the beginning of me believing that I could dance again.”

The Judges Were Amazed

Rojas leapt back into dancing with a controlled fervor, dancing in her living room, tailoring her motions to fit the movements her body could make. When a new doctor put her on etanercept (Enbrel), her pain decreased dramatically and at 17, she returned to dance classes. Although she thought her diagnosis had killed any dance career dreams, Rojas was able to happily accept a dance scholarship to the University of New Mexico in Albequerque.

After graduating in 2008, she was persuaded by a friend to try out for the popular FOX reality show “So You Think You Can Dance.” Emmy-nominated choreographers Tabitha and Napoleon D’Umo were on the judging panel in New York City when she auditioned there. “We were all just standing there in amazement. [Her dancing] was very jaw-dropping,” says Tabitha.

“But it wasn’t just her performance,” adds Napoleon. “She had this remarkable look in her eye right before she started to dance.” The rest of the season, when he was choreographing routines, he used that moment to inspire his dancers. “I’d say, ‘Do you remember how when Gabi gave that look and it was so captivating? That’s the look I need you to give!’”

Rojas didn’t make it through to the actual show, but not long after her auditions, she was accepted into the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance company in Denver. The company, which tours nationally, performs pieces rooted in strong African and African-American themes.

Now taking Enbrel, her only outward sign of RA is a bit of deformity in one of her fingers. For a while, she had limited range of motion in her hips, but hot yoga classes have helped increase her range of motion. Now, she says, she forgets everything when she dances.

“When I dance I can feel my spirit being lifted,” she says. “When I dance I’m reminded about breath because when that point of ultimate exertion arrives I have no choice but to take in more breath to keep going,” she says. “It’s at that moment I remember my breathing hard isn’t just a moment of recovery but a beautiful reminder that I’m alive, I’m present and I’m me.”