Henri Velandia instructs his dance class on Tuesday, December 10th, 2013. Photographer: Zac Santanello

Henri Velandia instructs his dance class on Tuesday, December 10th, 2013. Photographer: Zac Santanello

Walking through the front doors of the Drum and Dance Learning Center on Quakerbridge Road, with his dancing shoes in one hand and a bottle of water in the other, Henri Velandia is getting ready for what he loves the most: dancing.

He makes a few stretches in front of the huge mirror to warm what up, while he talks about the program for the evening with his co-worker and baby sister Claudia Palestini. After exchanging a lot of smiles Velandia is ready.

“Okay guys. Let’s get the class started.”

Henri starts off with the basic steps to refresh everyone’s memory. One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four.

“Awesome. Now the gentlemen stays where they are while the ladies will rotate and change partner, when I tell you.”

The technique Velandia is using, allows all the student’s in the class to dance with each other in order to get new perspectives from the various partners.

“Times up. High-five and then change partner.”

Velandia who grew up in Venezuela, had no history or interest of dancing until shortly after his arrival to America.

“I danced some latin dancing back home in Venezuela since it was part of the culture, but the actual training didn’t begin until I came to the States at the age of 20, where I got involved after someone gave me a brochure about ballet classes at a studio nearby” Velandia explained.

“I went to the ballet school and it’s amazing how much you can learn from being in control of your partners balance as they dance on the pointy shoes,” he said.  Velandia contunied saying, “Only one year later after I started ballet, I began ballroom dancing for three years while teaching salsa dance on the side.”

After opening his dancing business in 2005 he immediately employed his, now, sixteen year old little sister, Claudia Palestini as his dance partner.

“She is a huge inspiration to me,” said Velandia.

Leslie Evangelista Tietjen, a Bowka and body jam instructor at RWJ Fitness and Wellness, and also personal friend of Henri and his family, explains the effect Velandia have on others through his dancing.

“Words can not express how Henri has helped me in my life via dance,” Tietjen said. “Not only has he taught me how to be free in my movement, but he has taught me how to align my body and how to become a better Brazilian zouk dancer.”

Only a few months ago, Henri and Claudia won the IZFM (International Zouk Flashmob Day,) which meant that they got to do the choreography for the world flash mob which took place all over the world September this year.

“I was speechless when I got the news that I won. It was truly an overwhelming feeling,” said Velandia.

Having danced with Velandia for the last year, Tietjen excitedly explains the experience of being part of the flash mob.

“The zouk flash mob was a once in a life-time experience. There were over 150 cities and 45 countries that participated in the same choreography. Having Henri and his sister, Claudia, as winners of the Zouk Flashmob Choreography and having them instruct us, was an inspiring moment. Not too many people have the chance to work with such great talent,” said Tietjen.

Besides his ability to make the world dance according to his movements, Velandia has also won numerous of other awards.

Beginning in 2008 up until today, Velandia has won a total of six awards for his talent in latin dancing, and during fall, 2010, he was part of a show called “Look who’s dancing” which is the Latin version of Dancing with the Stars.

But the circumstances haven’t always been the best for Velandia.

Recently, after much struggling and waiting, Velandia received his Green Card to permanently stay in the States. Velandia who got married to Josh Vandiver in Connecticut, have since then had to fight his way to get what he wanted the most: to be with the ones he love.

It wasn’t until October 21, 2013, that gay marriage was accepted in New Jersey.

“I never really thought that in America, the spouse of an American could be deported.”

That is how Josh opens up the documentary from the star-ledger, explaining the story of the fight Henri and Josh, as well as two other gay couples, had to go through in order to stay together in the America.

“I come from a different culture where being gay or homosexual isn’t really something you can think about,” Henri explains.

The day before Henri’s hearing in May, they found out that the Obama administration announced that they no longer would defend DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act,) which is a law allowing that various states to refuse same sex marriage.

Because of Obama’s stand on DOMA, Velandias’s deportation was put on hold, allowing him to stay in the States without worries until the following hearing seven months later.

But Henri and Josh did not have to wait long.

Shortly after the hearing, Immigrations and Customs enforcement, closed Henri’s case, allowing him to permanently stay in the United States with the people he cares about.

In the documentary Velandia’s husband, Vandiver, expresses his relief of having Henri to stay with him.

“We’re relieved that he (Henri) is not getting deported, it’s a huge victory, but it’s a low bar. It doesn’t get any of the rights and benefits that a spouse of a non-gay American would receive.”

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About Louise Traberg-Nielsen

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