Google Historians

Written (copyright) by Harri Heinila

As I have worked with my PhD dissertation, which combines dance, politics and culture in the context of Authentic Jazz Dance and Harlem, I have gone through many different opinions about dance and its surrounding environment where the internet discussions are concerned. One striking feature in these opinions has been how easily these “researchers” speak about their subject. Even large subjects are explained easily like they are simple entities, not complicated and versatile subjects at all. Anybody, who has lived this life by somehow looking at what happens in this world, realizes that life is not a simple thing to perceive. So, how history can be that?

That is why it has been amazing how so-called “Google historians” have succeeded in promoting their “truths” about history. The term “Google historian” was invented by dance historian Peter Loggins, who was getting tired about people, who “googled” his research results and advertised those as their own. He had a site called ‘Dancehistory.org’ which he closed down years ago after these occasions. As I was one of writers in his site, I first felt that was unfair to us, other writers in the site. After years I have understood that more and more. Why do you give information to others who do not even mention your name when they promote those results as their own?

It is very easy to be a “dance historian”: you can get details from here and there and put them together as a story. Basically, you need not to analyze how those details match to other details of the subject and to the surrounding environment, and to the earlier research about your subject. If you can sell the story to people, who do not know enough about the subject, it is that easy: you created “history”.

Just some examples about this: first, the Charleston and speakeasies. I have been astonished how easily people accept the story about the Charleston was largely done in speakeasies. Anybody, who has researched the Charleston and how it was danced, knows how the Charleston was banned from ballrooms because it was too wild for dance floors. How is it possible that it was done in speakeasies then? It is quite logical that speakeasies were places which were hidden. If they had trouble with dancers, it was over, when officials got idea about that. So, speakeasy owners likely did not want any trouble. Think about that.

Secondly, I know people who have taught Chorus line routines (or Chorus girls routines) to ordinary people, even if they have never talked with any chorus line dancers or even have never seen any living one. That is like anybody can learn to dance those routines. That is something which really underrates what chorus line dancers did. Basically, if those people do not know anything about chorus lines, but they have seen in YouTube, why to go to their lessons? You can do the same by looking those chorus line clips in YouTube.

Thirdly, some people claim that they teach Savoy Ballroom style Lindy Hop, even if those people never have been at the Savoy Ballroom or even never have seen the building. Are they really “authentic” in what they are teaching? For example, I have learned from dancers who have been at the Savoy Ballroom. Can I claim that I teach Savoy Ballroom style Lindy Hop? Definitely NOT. I can only claim that I teach what I have learned and made by myself. Think about it.

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About authenticjazzdance

The author of the site is Harri Heinila, Doctor of Social Sciences, political history, and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Political and Economic Studies at the University of Helsinki. He is interested in Authentic Jazz Dance: all jazz dances from different eras of jazz. E.g. Cakewalk, the Charleston, Black Bottom, The Lindy Hop, Mambo, Rhythm Tap. Heinila researches jazz dance, in particular, in the context of Harlem, New York. His doctoral dissertation, An Endeavor by Harlem Dancers to Achieve Equality - The Recognition of the Harlem-Based African-American Jazz Dance Between 1921 and 1943 is a groundbreaking study in the field of jazz dance and Harlem.
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3 Responses to Google Historians

  1. Pingback: Do you acknowledge who you learnt your dance moves from? « Lindy Hop variations for followers

  2. dogpossum says:

    I think I need some clarification of your thinking, Harri.

    Are you arguing that any researcher who uses just digital sources is going to be full of rubbish?

    I can’t agree with that. There’s lots of important stuff to be gained from a little super-powered googling. I’d argue that the important part is not the tools you use, but the way you read the material you find. It’s important to be critical (in the sense of critical thinking, where you ask questions about veracity, accuracy, ideology, context and so on), to be self-reflexive (how is who I am and my ideas about the world affecting the way I read this text?), and to seek out substantiating and corroborating sources.

    I’d argue that any historian worth their salt should use a range of sources (primary, secondary, tertiary, etc -> speaking to people who were there; reading newspaper and first person accounts of people who were there; reading informed accounts of events by insightful observers). There are a whole host of digital sources (which you can search using google, which is after all just a powerful search engine – just a particularly clever index), and they can be very useful.
    For example, if I wanted to find out about Australian/British responses to a certain dance hall, I might find this search quite helpful: http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/result?q=jitterbug+contest&l-australian=y as it provides a series of digitised Australian newspaper and magazine articles. If I wanted to know what sort of film footage was available, so I could see what those newspaper stories were all about, I might search the catalogue of the National Film and Sound archive http://colsearch.nfsa.gov.au/nfsa/search/summary/summary.w3p;query=Id:132921%7CId:128868%7CId:83352%7CId:266434%7CId:118502%7CId:90354%7CId:97426%7CId:230653%7CId:79787%7CId:532439%7CId:83922%7CId:120864%7CId:91561%7CId:795240%7CId:84098
    I could use Pandora (a website archiving service run by the National Library) to access a history of the Trocadero in Sydney which includes first person accounts from people who were there: http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/61314/20060804-0000/home.westserv.net.au/_fordhen/Troc.html
    I could use Youtube to search for some footage from the events described in those pieces: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nh3BqXUDh-w and then I could use google to find a ‘legit’ source for this film (the NFSA, in this case): http://library.olmc.nsw.edu.au:8582/masterfile6/jsp/ims/imsview.jsp?doc_id=16770&as_session_id=21737A01CA31E19D8AB39B4A1517D474D810E

    But as we all know, this isn’t going to be enough for a really comprehensive historical survey. We’d need some first-person interviews. But all these digital sources are useful for finding out _who_ we should be talking to – who are the dancers mentioned in the newspaper reports, what do the dancers in the films look like, etc etc etc. Even if we do find a real person to talk to, there are going to be challenges. I remember Peter had written a really good how-to for interviewing older people about dancing on DanceHistory.org, touching on things like not rushing, being polite, being careful with emotive topics, etc etc.

    Secondly, though, I think it’s impossible to get an ‘objective’ or final, authoritative history of a topic. So, for example, there’re a number of competing and equally authoritative stories about things like what it was actually like in the Savoy ballroom. Some of these stories are just completely made up (and I do like the idea that Al and Leon told Marshall Stearns a heap of lies – lol!), some are inaccurate because the person telling the story was mistaken, and some conflict simply because the story tellers had different experiences in the Savoy (eg a young white woman might have a different experience than an older black man). So if I do manage to chase down dancers from the Trocadero, using all those digital sources, there’s no guarantee that any single story will be enough to gain a bigger idea of what it was like.

    I’m guessing this is your point? That we need to treat history as a complex, changing, moving story, rather than a simple one-off meta-narrative?

    The next challenge, though, is how you actually go about stuffing history into your dance classes. When I teach, I like to reference the people who told me the story (eg “Norma tells a story in a clip filmed at Herrang in year X where she said…” or “Lennart pointed out that such-and-such was very young when _they_ heard this story”). That seems important, and I think it encourages students to learn from a whole range of teachers (Norma and Lennart and…). I think a lot of dance teachers are reluctant to encourage their students to do their own research and thinking, or to learn from other people. For the usual reasons.

    But if you’re telling these historical stories in class, you have to keep them _really_ short – the less talking, the more dancing in a dance class, the better (ie the more viable) they’ll be. You can’t just list a whole heap of facts and hope they’ll stick. You have to use story-telling carefully, integrating it with the physical movements and pacing of the class. This takes preparation, skill and experience. There was an interesting discussion on Jive Junction, years ago, where someone pointed out how Frankie’s story-telling skills improved over the years. He became a _better_ story teller. And not every dance teacher is that good at telling a story.

    I guess, what I’m trying to say, is that using history in dance culture is hard. You’ve got to have good research skills, you’ve got to have good story telling skills, and you’ve got to have the _time_ to do all this. Most dance classes are a labour of love, with very little financial return, and a whole heap of political complexity. We shouldn’t be surprised that some people are just crap at it. They might be very good at teaching people how to use their bodies. I think we should be kinder to dancers who’re actually talking about history (many don’t!), cut them some slack. And possibly point them in the direction of some useful research.

  3. Thanks for the detailed reply! The main idea of my article is first of all to take a stand on those who copy others’ research results without mentioning the original researcher. They just “google” those results and publish them as their own, or they find out those results in some other way and don’t give a recognition to the original researcher.

    Secondly, my article takes a stand on those, who just put together some details from here and there and make a story with those details without really researching the subject.

    The internet is full of digital sources you can use for research when you know how to do that. You don’t need an academic education to be a good researcher. The basic three methods in history researching you need to know are: 1. Inner source criticism which means that you have to find out what purpose the source is made for. 2. Outer source criticism which mainly means that you have to find out whether the source is authentic or if it is fake. Just to mention briefly the meanings of those criticism types. And 3. To avoid anachronism. That means that you shouldn’t use current meanings when you write about the past. You should use the meanings and terminology they used in the past. In addition to those, you should understand what is a difference between a primary source and a secondary source. That is it in a nutshell how you should research history. The article and this addition are only short statements of the faults in history research as based on my own experience.

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