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March 22, 2023

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All that ‘Jass’ a hit at Vancouver’s Providence Academy

Ne Plus Ultra Jass Orchestra and Providence Academy team up to swing at first Friday events

By , Columbian staff writer
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The whole Teo family got decked out in period costume to attend the first Ne Plus Ultra Jass Orchestra swing dance at Providence Academy.
The whole Teo family got decked out in period costume to attend the first Ne Plus Ultra Jass Orchestra swing dance at Providence Academy. (James Rexroad/for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The lush sounds and sophisticated steps of a century ago are swinging back into style at one of Vancouver’s most historical sites.

In a partnership aimed at enlivening both downtown’s music scene and the building itself, Vancouver’s Ne Plus Ultra Jass Orchestra has launched a monthly concert and swing-dance series on the first Friday night of every month in the ballroom at Providence Academy.

“I have been longing to bring our music to the community on a regular basis,” said Sammuel Murry-Hawkins, founder and conductor of the authentically old-school Ne Plus Ultra Jass Orchestra.

Early discussions with owner-operator The Historic Trust about live music at the Academy were derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, but the idea has come to fruition at last.

“For the band to have the opportunity to present in the academy is truly wonderful,” he said in an email. “Our goal with each performance is to transport our audiences, and to be able to perform in a space that reflects a past era only adds to the verisimilitude of the experience for the patrons.”

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.

The Valiant Ballroom, 111 W. Ninth St., is a subsidiary of Alisa Tetreault’s adjacent Most Everything Vintage Shop, around the corner at 815 Washington St. The two spaces connect through an interior door. Tetreault said she’s loved reviving stylish social dancing in what used to be a Fred Astaire Dance Studio.

The dance instructor at Valiant is Ryan Kubow, who sees ballroom dancing as a way to make friends and enjoy small, safe doses of “casual intimacy,” he said. Kubow likes to quote renowned American dancer Frankie Manning, who called ballroom dancing an opportunity for “three-minute romance.”

“In our daily lives, we interact with people, but we stay segregated. We don’t get up close and personal,” Kubow said. “When you dance with someone, you’re close enough that you’re almost hugging. You share an emotion, you share a feeling.”

But if creepy guys bring “poor intentions” to a dance, he added, it’s easy to feel that too. Those men quickly find themselves without partners, he said.

Nothing could be more ironic than Kubow becoming a dance instructor, he said. He grew up in a conservative religious sect that frowns upon dancing. Kubow said he was awkward and introverted until he discovered the joy of swing dance, which is also easier on his knees than running.

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.

Proper dancing

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?”


What: Ne Plus Ultra Jass Orchestra at Providence Academy

When: 7 p.m. Friday and continuing every first Friday of the month

Where: 400 E. Evergreen Blvd., Vancouver

Tickets: $10 cash at the door; $10.50 with a credit card; $11 in advance.

On the web:

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.”

Providence Hall

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.”