It is Thursday night, and a growing crowd of “salsaholics” is assembling in a studio at the Princeton YWCA. Women, some young enough to have acne and others old enough to be their grandmothers, are chatting, as they strap on their high heels. Men of similar age range are joining them in the studio, taking their places in a circle around a handsome, lithe man wearing black pants and a tank top.
He is Henri Velandia, a 27-year-old native of Venezuela and West Windsor resident, who has become the center of all things salsa in the greater Princeton area. Teaching classes in rented studios at the
YWCA, Princeton Dance and Theater Studio in Plainsboro, and Katmandu, the Trenton club on the riverfront, Velandia epitomizes the name of his company: HotSalsaHot.
On Thursday, May 26, Velandia holds a special Patriot Salsa Social, from 6:30 to 11 p.m. wit special performances by his student groups and his semi-pro team. “There will be refreshments, raffles, and lots of dancing,” he promises, including three levels of salsa and two levels of bachata. Participants are encouraged to wear red, white, and blue.
“Dancing is a conversation,” he tells them. “We are not machines. Men: When you are dancing with a lady, you have to say ‘Hello! How are you?’ Something has to be going on between you.” To demonstrate, Velandia spins his 14-year-old sister, Claudia, a gorgeous dancer with an authoritative manner and perfect technique, onto the floor.
Velandia’s relaxed, easy manner belies a personal situation that could result in disastrous circumstances. His visitor visa has expired, and he faces possible deportation back to Venezuela in early May. Velandia married his partner, Josh Vandiver, an American citizen and Princeton University graduate student, last August. The couple wed in Connecticut, a state that recognizes same-sex marriage. But because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the green cards normally granted to immigrants legally married to American citizens are denied to same-sex married couples due to DOMA.
Still, Velandia is hopeful that the law will soon be deemed unconstitutional. According to Velandia, Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ) and a group of U.S. Senators “are requesting that the Department of Homeland Security formulate policy which palces a nationwide moratorium on the deportations of same-sex spouses in bi-national marrieages.”
On Friday, May 6, an adjournment of Velandia’s case was granted, which, he says, is essentially a postponement. “I still may be separated from Josh. The next hearing before my immigration judge is December 16.”
Velandia and Vandiver have some 10,300 supporters on their Facebook page, “Save Our Marriage.” The couple was featured in an article about the situation in the April 8 edition of the New York Times. “The paper got to us through one of my students, who is a reporter and told people at the paper about our story,” Velandia says. “It’s the other side of my life. It’s hard, but we have a lot of support, and it’s very encouraging. We’re sharing our story because it applies to so many people today. It’s not about being gay or straight. It’s about the right to be the person you want to be, with the person you want to be with.”
With his fate in the balance, Velandia focuses on the day-to-day business of sharing his love of salsa with students and fellow enthusiasts. He and his sister, whom he trained, are the only dancers in the family. His father is an architect in Venezuela; his mother, Luz Marina, who lives on Old Trenton Road in West Windsor with Claudia, is an aesthetician.
“As part of my culture, you just grow up with Latin music and dancing,” Velandia says. “It’s a part of life. When I came to the states seven years ago, I wanted to learn other kinds of dance.”
At the ripe old age of 20 (for a dancer) Velandia enrolled at Princeton Dance and Theater Studio soon after arriving in the Princeton area.
After a few years studying ballet, modern, and ballroom dancing, Velandia began to think about blending those styles with the salsa he knew well. While popular all over Latin America, salsa movements originate from the Cuban Son dancing of the 1920s. Today it embraces a mix of Latin-American and Western influences, and it is practiced in a number of different styles.
“I developed my own style of body movement,” says Velandia. “It’s a blend of ballroom, modern, ballet, and salsa, as organic as possible. Anyone can do it because it is a natural movement of the body, as opposed to other forms of dance. People worry, ‘Will I be able to move my hips the right way?’ But once you let go, it just happens. The ladies feel more sexy, the guys are more confident.”
Velandia thinks the success of television’s “Dancing with the Stars” has something to do with the popularity of the kind of dance he teaches, though that program focuses more on ballroom. “All of these dance TV shows inspire people to dance and to move, and that’s a wonderful thing,” he says.
In the studio at the YWCA, Velandia is teaching on one side of the room; his sister Claudia works with a group of women behind a divider. The noise from one area doesn’t seem to distract those dancing in the other. A little girl, someone’s daughter, does her own interpretation of the music in another corner. Students awaiting the next class chat companionably. Everyone is relaxed.
Some of his tudents have accompanied Velandia to salsa “congresses” around the country, most recently in Miami last year. “Henri is a great teacher,” Musco says. “He really looks to see what you need to be taught; he doesn’t just teach a class. And he brings his experience in ballet and modern dance to the mix. I can’t get enough of it. None of us can.”
Velandia’s classes at the
YWCA Princeton are well established. He has high hopes for the sessions that recently got underway in Trenton, at Katmandu. “It’s a great spot,” Velandia says. “We have a small crowd for now. But it will grow. Our school is designed to take people from nothing to having a great time on the dance floor, and it will happen.”
Patriot Salsa Social, HotSalsaHot, Thursday, May 26, 6:30 to 11 p.m., Princeton YWCA, 59 Paul Robeson Place, Princeton. Three levels of salsa, two levels of bachata, a social, and performances. No partner necessary. Wear red, white, and blue. Register. $25 includes two workshops, social, and refreshments. Bachata and social, $20. Social after 9 p.m., $15. 609-651-6070 or www.hotsalsahot.com.
Also, Loco Latin, Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m., KatManDu, Waterfront Park, Trenton. Bachata and salsa class followed by three hours of social dancing with the HotSalsaHot team led by Henri Velandia. $8.