Founded by Murry-Hawkins in 2017, the Ne Plus Ultra Jass Orchestra specializes in re-creating the romantic, occasionally naughty and eminently danceable sounds of hotel orchestras and pioneer jazz bands of the 1920s and ’30s.
As emcee, singer and conductor, the tuxedoed-and-tailed Murry-Hawkins is the very picture of elegance and sass as he leads the 11-piece group through classics and obscure finds by the likes of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and even rediscovered Portland bandleader Herman Kenin.
More than 100 people turned up for the first event on Oct. 7, according to Murry-Hawkins, and they were decked out in everything from fabulous flapper dresses to rock ’n’ roll T-shirts.
Learn to dance
You’re welcome to sit back and appreciate the smooth sound of early jazz at Providence Academy. Plenty of seats are available. But it’s so much more fun to wriggle, jiggle and sail around the dance floor with a partner.
If you’d like to wriggle, jiggle and sail with skill, consider stopping by downtown Vancouver’s reborn Valiant Ballroom on any Thursday night. Half-hour beginner lessons are offered at 6 p.m., after which a two-hour “swing and sway” dance begins at 7 p.m.
Kubow’s specialty as an instructor is the style known as East Coast Swing, he said, which is an outgrowth of the Lindy Hop, which is an outgrowth of the Charleston. (Swing dance styles, like swing music, have complicated lineage. Dancers won’t be quizzed on their historical knowledge.)
East Coast Swing is the perfect partner dance for the Ne Plus Ultra Jass Orchestra’s hopping rhythms, Kubow said.
“It’s easy to pick up, it’s pretty straightforward and it’s very danceable with the music of the ’20s and ’30s,” Kubow said.
Experienced ballroom dancers often show up for refresher lessons and the dance that follows at Valiant, Kubow said. They often bring prior knowledge of other styles that swing, including the fox trot, the Balboa and the Collegiate Shag, he said.
For years, Marie Konka was the driving force behind the Fred Astaire Dance Studio that’s now Alisa Tetreault’s Valiant Ballroom.
“I was the owner. I was the instructor. I judged dance competitions. I did it all,” said Konka, who still lives in Vancouver.
Konka said she’s glad to see the dance floor she installed decades ago back in use so people can learn proper ballroom dancing, she said.
Never make the mistake of calling ballroom dancing “old fashioned” around Konka, who will patiently correct you.
She said proper dancing is partner dancing that takes instruction and practice. Learning to dance used to be a standard part of growing up and socializing with the opposite sex, she said. But proper partner dancing got replaced with “gyrating and jumping up and down,” she said.
Konka isn’t a fan.
“It’s mass chaos,” she said. “If you’re invited out to a wedding and they are playing dance music. … Are you going to gyrate around to a waltz?”
There’s still one place in this world where the man must always be in control, she said, and that’s the ballroom dance floor.
“If a man asks me to dance and he knows how to lead, it’s a very exciting feeling,” Konka said. “It feels good. You’re flowing. You’re in time with the music. It’s wonderful.”
Monthly swing dances are a good excuse to check out recent renovations to the Providence Academy ballroom.
The ground-floor auditorium was described by this newspaper as “a model of comfort and elegance” when it was added to the original 1873 Providence Academy. The 1891 building expansion saw the edifice grow asymmetrically westward, altering the original cruciform design.
While it was operated by the Sisters of Providence, the multipurpose auditorium known as Providence Hall hosted music lessons and performances as well as celebrations, reunions, graduations and religious observances. It was informally known as the music room, and what’s now a catering kitchen in the southeastern corner of the room used to be a row of individual rehearsal nooks for music students.
The Providence Academy school closed in 1966. Vancouver brick maven Robert Hidden bought it a few years later. Providence Hall became an event rental space called The Blanchet Ballroom. When The Historic Trust took over the property, it rechristened and continued renting out Providence Hall for private events. Upgrades and renovations took place in 2019.
Today’s visitors will note faux marble columns and a small dance floor to one side of the stage, as well as new carpeting, historically appropriate fixtures and new windows. This winter, they’ll also appreciate a new heating and cooling system.
Bringing revelers back into the ballroom for First Friday events “takes us in a whole new direction,” The Historic Trust CEO Temple Lentz said. “We look forward to doing more community-oriented events in this great community-oriented space.”