Gabe Adams is a dreamer with no arms, no legs and a radiant smile that belies the daily challenges he faces.
Since age 12, when he taught himself a few unique moves and received a standing ovation at a junior high talent show, the Kaysville, Utah, teen has expressed himself through modern dance.
Last year, few people were surprised when he set his sights on joining the dance team at Davis High School.
So what if only a handful of boys had tried out for the team before? So what if Gabe didn’t have limbs to perform leaps and laterals like the other dancers?
“I’ve just always wanted to be something more than the kid in the wheelchair,” Gabe, now 17, who made the dance team as a sophomore along with 28 girls last spring, tells PEOPLE. “I feel a freedom whenever I dance. Nothing else comes close to it.”
Gabe’s talent and tenacity is even more remarkable given that the teen also has Hanhart syndrome, a congenital defect leaving him with a small jaw and a partially-developed tongue, making it impossible for him to use his mouth to hold a pencil or fork or turn pages in a book. Instead, he relies on his neck, shoulder and chin.
“For most of his life, he’s faced huge battles,” his adoptive mom, Janelle Adams, 57, a receptionist, tells PEOPLE. “It took him a whole year to learn how to walk, but he didn’t give up. It’s the same with dancing. He just kept trying.”
Given up by his birth mother in Brazil because she didn’t think she could care for him, Gabe was adopted by Janelle and her husband, Ron Adams, 57, a Mormon seminary teacher, after they learned about the infant’s plight from a friend.
“I kept thinking about this baby far away in a hospital with no arms and no legs – I couldn’t get him out of my mind,” says Janelle, who has 13 biological children, most of them grown. “I kept wondering, ‘How would I feed him? How would I dress him? How would we teach him to walk?’ ”
In the end, she says, “it felt right. Bringing him to Utah to live with us was just something we were supposed to do.”
“We thought we were rescuing somebody and giving him a better life, but in fact, it’s been just the opposite,” adds Ron. “He’s rescued us and given us a better life. Having him around has been so inspiring and motivating. He’s always pushing himself to be the very best he can be.”
Although he uses a wheelchair to get to his classes at school quickly, Gabe prefers scooting along on his own whenever possible.
Five years ago, when he secretly taught himself to dance and tried out for his junior high school talent show, “we were flabbergasted,” says Janelle. “We had no idea. He made up his own dance routine and worked at it for several months.” She pauses, her voice breaking. “After Gabe’s performance, everyone jumped to their feet and gave him a standing ovation.”
“It felt great,” says Gabe, who practices his dance moves for several hours a day. “From then on, dancing became my way to express myself. I was determined to keep learning everything I could.”
Gabe had previously taken a modern dance class at Davis High, so dance teacher Kim King already knew he was capable before he tried out for the team.
“He’s just like every other teenager, with the same hopes, desires and dreams,” she tells PEOPLE. “It’s wonderful that Gabe finds joy through the arts. He’s articulate and mature and has never wanted to be seen as the boy with limitations.”
Last year, Gabe wasn’t the only one thrilled to find his name on the list of dancers who made the Davis High team.
“He’s such a huge inspiration to all of us,” says teammate Tori Nybo, 18. “Whenever I’m struggling in and out of dance, I look to Gabe and realize that we can do anything. Just being around Gabe sends good vibes to the whole team. He’s humble and kind and has learned the most important lesson in life: how to be happy.”
Gabe, who hopes to become an interior designer or counselor one day, says that when he graduates from high school next year, he plans to continue his search for a sweet rhythm in life.
“Whenever I’m doubting myself, I start dancing and I feel better,” he says. “I’m going to give it my all every year going forward, no matter what.”