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Twenty Guidelines for Dance Research and Reconstruction

Richard Powers

Interest in reconstructing historical dances has been growing for over a century, but lately we have seen a significant increase in sophistication among historical dance enthusiasts. The appeal of bygone eras is as strong as ever, but the quaint charm of the "old timey" approximations is being replaced by a growing interest in historical authenticity. Perhaps this is influenced by the greater accuracy of period films, museum displays, YouTube videos of historical dance, and the heightened historic detailing that has blossomed recently.  Whatever the reason, historical dancers today have a greater desire to know the original steps, styles, figures and music. Dancers describe a greater satisfaction in authenticity — a feeling of substance.

This trend is appearing in most branches of historical dance, inspiring dancers to come up with increasingly authentic reconstructions. And many are responding with their own explorations into uncharted areas, doing their own research, no longer relying on the work of others. Some would like to do their own work, but don't know where to begin. It is for this purpose that I have sketched these guidelines for dance research and reconstruction.

1. Do your own research, using primary sources.

Primary sources are firsthand records from the time of an event or era, recorded by those who witnessed or participated in an event. Primary sources for historic dance include dance manuals, diaries, newspaper accounts, music notations, illustrations, film documents (for the past century) and sources that you'll find below. Secondary sources pass on secondhand information and hearsay, perhaps conscientiously, but without certain knowledge. Secondary sources include the many histories of dance found on the Web, history books, most academic theses, restaged films and teleplays, and the teachings of dance instructors who did not experience their material firsthand. Some scholars divide this second category into secondary and tertiary sources, but the advice to use primary sources when doing research remains the same.

Secondary sources are often wrong. Sometimes the authors have unconscious biases, or perhaps they have a theme to promote. There are also some esteemed secondary sources that deal intelligently with primary source materials, but many dance histories quote other dance histories, which have quoted previous dance histories. Errors mount exponentially in the process, especially on the Web. Not only are the fallacies passed on, but the unfortunate student who reads the same "fact" in several sources will become convinced that it is true.

There are also in-between grey areas that scholars enjoy debating: Are interviews based on distant memories primary or secondary sources?  How trustworthy are dance descriptions in novels written at the time? If a primary source in German is translated into English, is it still primary? Either way, use your common sense awareness of the inherent shortcomings of some sources.

Primary sources are increasingly available and fascinating to study. Reading an account written at the very moment of an event offers an immediacy not found in history books. Authors and teachers who work from primary sources speak with a freshness and vividness that can only come from a direct tap to the wellspring.

     Some Primary Sources

  • Dance manuals.  This vade mecum tradition goes back to the hand-written dance descriptions of the fifteenth century. The earliest dance manuals were intended to be used by professional dancing masters, then the 19th century American Lyceum movement helped launch the widespread publication of how-to dance manuals, where home study could hopefully transform readers into graceful and accomplished dancers. You can find a listing of my collection of dance manuals here and Nick Enge's listing here.

  • Professional and enthusiast dance magazines like Dancing Times, The Director, The Two-Step, The Galop Magazine, Dance Lovers Magazine, La Danse, The American Dancer, and The Dance. These often chronicle month-by-month and regional developments more precisely than books.

  • Etiquette books, which offer a different perspective, often more cautious concerning dancing.

  • Anti-dance treatises, which sometime describe the more illicit dances (such descriptions are hard to find in dance manuals). You can find a listing of my collection here, and Nick Enge's listing here.

  • Diaries, letters, journals and autobiographies, for personal insights and unique details.

  • Novels and other literature contemporary to the era, for period ambiance and personal interactions in a dance setting.

  • Newspapers, for the latest breaking dances and regional variations.

  • Iconography: illustrations from the era including paintings, drawings, etchings, lithographs, woodcuts, sculptures, tapestries and photographs. See further suggestions for using illustrations in section 10 below.

  • Ball programmes (carnets de bals, dance cards). These small cards listed exactly what dances were done at a ball; and when and where the ball was. Collections of these dance cards may indicate dance trends, regional variations, partnering patterns, favorite orchestras, and other details. Observing which dances were signed up for and which were left blank (sat out) will also reveal which dances were truly popular.

  • Music notations. In addition to music's role as an essential component of dance, sheet music occasionally contains dance instructions printed inside the cover.

  • Phonograph records from the era solve tempo problems and questions about performance practices, offer an aural glimpse of the character of a dance, and sometimes give vocal dance descriptions.

  • Original motion picture and video documents are the ultimate imagery for a dance scholar, if they can be found. It's too bad films, video and phonographs weren't invented centuries earlier.

  • Interviews, which are especially important for dances of the past half-century. Conduct your own interviews with people who were there, and don't put this off until next year.  Aging dancers might not still be around.
          Suggestion: If you find that your questions are not eliciting a response, play original recordings of the music or demonstrate some steps to jog the memory. Follow up for details... you can't ask a book further questions.


  • Advertisements and broadsides, which are sometimes the only surviving record of a dance event.

  • Surviving archives from dance academies and dance masters, sometimes still intact as a collection. These can include correspondence between dance masters, fee schedules, and travel routes of itinerant preceptors.

  • Critics' reviews and social column gossip, for opinions from the era on stage and social dance.

  • Original clothing, regalia, and costumes, in museums and private collections. Clothing influenced dance as much as dance changed fashions.

  • Architecture. A visit to ballrooms or dance academies still standing will show how a space may have influenced the dances that were known to have taken place there.

  • Receipts and other financial information may indicate the social prestige of an event, or possibly list inventories of musical instruments, dance props (as for the German cotillion games) and costumes.

  • City directories list dates and locations of dance academies, cabarets and dance halls, although sometimes only paid venues were listed.

         Where To Find Primary Sources

  • The Library of Congress has made over two hundred entire dance manuals available on the Web, on their site entitled An American Ballroom Companion.

  • Nick Enge has the most comprehensive online bibliography, with an ever-increasing number of indexed sources, and links to downloadable publications.

  • I have also put 108 sources from my own collection online here, as free downloads.

  • Google it. Many of these sources are available online. Search key words and word combinations.

  • Google Books. Over 30 million books have been scanned by this ongoing project, and many early books not currently protected by copyright can be downloaded as pdfs. It helps if you know a book's title and author, but you can browse by category and by century.  Project Gutenberg has digitized another 57,000 books.

  • Public libraries. Check them all, not just the largest libraries. Dance academies and private collectors sometimes bequeath their collections to a small library. An increasing drawback of libraries is that they are changing over to digitized indexes and closed stacks. Some of the best sources are those found on the shelf next to the book you were looking for, while digitized data requires prior knowledge of your sources. Don't overlook the newspaper stacks, clipping files, phonograph records, and the rare book room.

    The best libraries for dance research in the U.S. are The Dance Collection at The New York Public Library, Lincoln Center, and the Library of Congress. In France, try the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and Bibliothèque-Musee de l'Opera in Paris. There are many other collections of historical dance resources throughout the world.


  • Institutional, university and corporate libraries. These may require membership or special permission to peruse, but don' t be easily daunted.

  • Rare book dealers. If they don't have what you're looking for, they can sometimes search for you through advertisements in their trade magazines.

  • AbeBooks is an online consortium of many rare book dealers.

  • eBay and other online auctions. You can also save the scanned images of illustrations, and ball cards, without actually purchasing the items.

  • YouTube is becoming an increasingly valuable repository for historic films, as primary records of 20th century dances.

  • Antique shops, conventions and flea markets. They are time-consuming to search, but enjoyable and eventually rewarding.

  • Private collectors and researchers. Most dance scholars collect primary sources, but be aware that you should not ask them to copy their books for you, as this is extremely time consuming for them and damaging to their rare books. The best you can usually hope for is a one-for-one exchange for a source that they don't have.

      Concerning Secondary Sources

Despite their shortcomings, secondary sources can be helpful if used with caution. They can give others' perspectives and insights, and they can direct you to primary sources through their bibliographies. It is sometimes not possible to use primary sources on every project.  If this happens, the second best approach is to find out who is doing esteemed research in the field and follow their work, or hire them to present a workshop.

But this caveat does not negate the main point here. Do your own research, using primary sources. Only resort to the use of secondary sources if primary sources are unavailable, or to double-check your conclusions with the work of others.


The other guidelines


2)  Search out multiple concordances for each dance, step, and figure before presenting them as a reconstruction.  A single source usually contains too many unknowns, with the author assuming that the reader will understand a great number of unstated conventions.  (Perhaps their readers did at the time.)  There are so many pitfalls — non-uniform terminology, mistranslations, pirated material, typographical errors, and so on — that dance scholars consider it essential to compare several descriptions from the same era before arriving at a conclusion.

3)  Your reconstruction should be plausible.  It should be reasonable, feasible and probable. Occasionally a dance historian settles for possible instead of probable, innovating an edge case interpretation that just barely fits within the words that the author used. For a reconstruction to be considered probable, ask yourself, "If my interpretation is correct, would the author have described it the way that he/she did?" The answer might be, "No, that author would have described my interpretation in a different way." Back to the drawing board.

For a reconstruction to be plausible, only use choreographic elements and conventions that would have been known to that author, from that year and locale.

4Read the entire book or source before reconstructing a dance contained in it. Dance descriptions are often incomplete in some important details, which may be found elsewhere in the book.  Also read other books by the same author to see what changed and what remained the same over the years.

5)  Read the source in its original language if you can. Translations are full of errors. If you must use a translation, at least find one from the period, which is more likely to understand now-obsolete terms and colloquialisms. And never overlook a source simply because it isn't in English. For example, detailed descriptions of the American ragtime "animal dances" were very rare in American sources because of their impropriety. But I discovered some Italian, French and German dance manuals from the period that included illustrated descriptions of the Grizzly Bear and Turkey Trot, which were held in a higher esteem, in their eyes, because they had been imported from America.

6Re-read your sources a few years later. It's amazing how many critical details escape a first reading.

7)  Investigate the authors.  Were they dance masters, biased or impartial observers, compilers or editors? Did they do the dances themselves? Were they young and idealistic, or weary and bitter? Were they writing their own material? Did they even exist? While dance manual plagiarism was common, it was usually limited to the borrowing of a few paragraphs or chapters from previous books. Occasionally it was more extensive, as in DeWalden's Ball-Room Companion. Everything except the title page of Emile DeWalden's book was a verbatim copy of Cellarius' famous manual, including the typographical errors. One line that Emile should have changed in his piracy was in the description of the "Cellarius Waltze-Mazurka,' where DeWalden (ostensibly) writes, "My pupils would have this waltze called after me, and have named it the Cellarius."

If you cannot locate biographical information on the author, at least go back and read the entire book for the author's tone. This can greatly affect your interpretation of a dance description. If the source was simply compiled by a publisher, not a dance master, be cautious about the common practice of reprinting obsolete dances, which often sold well to an unsuspecting public. Dick's Quadrille Call Book (1878) was still being promoted as "embracing all the modern favorites" in its 1923 reprinting.

8)  Be aware of what was ideal in the eyes of the author (what he or she wished would be done) and what was actually done by the public. You will often find a dance master describing his own terpsichorean inventions as "the most popular dance of the season," but you won't find his dance mentioned anywhere else. Another bias you will find is lavish praise of high-society dances, and elaborate descriptions of complex steps that can only be learned in the author's own dance academy, but no mention of the simpler steps actually danced by most people. This bias has existed since the fifteenth century. Always dig deeper for vernacular dances and styles.

9)  Don't confuse similar terminology and traditions from different eras and locales. One name does always not mean one dance. Terms and styles varied widely from one locale to another and from one year to the next. It's careless to incorporate 1890 American mazurka steps into an 1847 French figure just because they're both called "mazurka." The term "Viennese Waltz" meant one thing in 1830 Germany, something different in 1860 France, and different again in 20th century British ballroom dance.

Although it might be possible for earlier steps to survive into a later era, never insert later steps into an earlier dance. Evolution doesn't work that way.

Definitions and word usage change over the years. Try to find a dictionary from your era of study, to double-check the original meaning of any word that strikes you as out of place. One author wrote the amusing footnote that the title of Charles Durang's Fashionable Dancer's Casket referred to "the coffin-like shape of the book" (even though it had a normal shape). If he had checked an 1850 dictionary, he would have found that the definition of "casket" at that time was a small jewel box. Durang's previous book was entitled Ball-Room Bijou (jewels) so he was just continuing his theme. The coffin association of "casket" wasn't made until decades later.

And along that line, don't intermix social and theatrical traditions. For instance, don't put theatrical dance steps into the reconstruction of a social dance, unless you have evidence that this was done at the time.

10)  Incorporate iconographic evidence. Search out illustrations of all kinds, for they will often contain a wealth of information that you'll never find in print. Look through collections of paintings, prints and posters, period novels and social satires, newspapers and magazines, sheet music covers, clipping files, on the internet, postcard collections, scrapbooks and Google Images. I recommend scanning illustrations into computer files or photocopying them, for constant reference. There will always be details missed in the first viewing that will jump out with great significance two years later. Collecting illustrations this way will also allow quick side-by-side comparisons of a dance or an era.

There are some cautions, however, in using illustrations as source material. Be aware of the illustrator's conventions and artist's license. The artist's intent was not necessarily to preserve the details of the moment for future historians. Artists exaggerated. They satirized. Very often they idealized. Artists underwent years of training in the classic ideals of beauty, symmetry, form, and proportion, and they often portrayed these ideals regardless of their actual subject matter.

In earlier centuries, woodcuts and engravings were expensive to commission but cheap to copy, and cheaper to re-use. As a result, many dance manual illustrations were lifted from previous sources, sometimes out-of-date by decades. Publishers didn't seem to mind if an old waltz woodcut was used to illustrate the latest Varsovienne. Even today, you can't always believe the captions of collected illustrations, especially in dance history books and on the Web.

11)  Give a high priority to the research of dance music. Music is one of the primary reasons for dancing, and one of its greatest joys. Particular tunes and rhythms often led to the creation of new dances. Conversely, music was frequently composed for a particular dance.  Each dance belonged to its own music, and the pairing should be preserved in a reconstruction, if possible.

Look for references to the original tunes. If they aren't provided or named in the dance sources, then check collections of dance music. If you're studying nineteenth century dance, ball programs occasionally listed the compositions and composers for each dance of the evening. If you cannot find references for original music, then seek out appropriate dance tunes from the same era and region. Research original instrumentations and orchestrations. Surviving information in each of these areas dates back to the Renaissance. If you feel this is too far from your expertise, then you may wish to collaborate with a musicologist.

Original tempos are especially important in dance music. Scholars often slow down their reconstructions far below the original tempos.  Social dances were done primarily by young people, often as an aspect of courtship. In past centuries, the unmarried dancers were usually teenagers, often dancing at brisk tempos befitting their youth. Scholars sometimes approach these dances with such reverence that they inadvertently slow down the youthful tempos. Or a 70-year-old scholar may reconstruct a youthful energetic dance at a slower tempo that he or she can manage.

For example, some scholars of nineteenth century social dance slowed down their polka reconstructions to a dirge (about 80 beats per minute) because the Parisian dance master Cellarius stated (in a translated edition of his 1847 book) that the polka was to be danced "rather slow." But "slow" is a relative term. Slow compared to what? Twentieth century scholars were simply making their polkas slower than the twentieth century polka, which couldn't possibly be what Cellarius meant. In the original French edition of that book, Cellarius' comment ("un peu lent") was accompanied by a metronome marking that had been deleted from the translation: 104 beats per minute, which is somewhat brisk. The slowness that Cellarius was referring to was probably relative to the dance most similar to the polka at that time: the rapid Galopade.

Or conversely, today's fast-paced lifestyle sometimes unconsciously accelerates the tempos of genteel dances. Cast your preconceptions aside and look for empirical evidence of tempos, preferably metronome markings.

12)  Thoroughly research the entire context of a dance, beyond the steps, figures and music. This includes the fashions, makeup, social deportment, courtship customs, ballroom etiquette, the age and social standing of participants, period aesthetics as they influenced body carriage, posture and gestures, the economic and political climate of the time, gender markers and biases, racial interactions, the influence of concurrent dance traditions, evolutionary patterns in dance and music, and the many other details that surrounded dance.

One of the reasons for this peripheral research is to understand the mindset of an era. We tend to interpret early dance descriptions with current semantics, just as we tend to perform ancient dance reconstructions with modern body language. For instance, some Renaissance dance scholars with ballet training have on occasion interpreted the descriptions "graceful" and "courtly" with balletic mannerisms, for dances that predated turnout and pointed toes by centuries.

13Resist confirmation bias. The subconscious goal of the brain is to validate what it already believes. This is an especially unhelpful aspect of human cognition. Confirmation bias makes us give greater weight to observations which support our beliefs, and to marginalize or dismiss facts that don't.

Despite this being #13 down the list, this is one of the most important guidelines for dance research.


Since the 17th century, this guideline has been a foundation of the Scientific Method, as an empirical process for gathering information. Scientists have long known that hoping for a specific outcome will corrupt both one's perceptions and conclusions. Thus, the mandates of the Scientific Method, and of rigorous scholarship, are designed to eliminate the problem of confirmation bias.

One always has a prevailing working theory, which is fine. It's based on information gathered so far, and doesn't necessarily indicate a bias. The point is to identify any unconscious biases, and the tendency for a prevailing theory to become a favored theory, meaning, becoming attached to that as a preferred outcome. If we detect a personal preference, we must try harder to remain objective.

Unfortunately, many dance treatises, conference papers, books, and lectures are filled with examples of researchers zeroing in on any bit of information that supports their favored theory, while ignoring evidence that doesn't. This has escalated in the internet age, where something can always be found somewhere that appears to support a favored theory, no matter how trivial. Rare exceptions can be gathered together in an attempt to portray an aberration as a mainstream trend. Always be truthful in reporting the scale (predominance or rarity) of the topic being analyzed.

Since confirmation bias is the enemy of objective research, how can we tell if we're biased? Is it when we especially enjoy finding evidence that supports our prevailing theory? No, we're always happy to find any new information. We know that we're biased if we feel negative about new information that counters a favored theory, or if we find that we tend to dismiss or marginalize new data that doesn't fit. That's the red flag. We must constantly remain aware of confirmation bias, and make an extra effort to avoid a bias toward preferred conclusions.

Unconscious biases also tend to appear during the dance reconstruction process. As we try to make sense of vaguely written dance descriptions, we tend to visualize an interpretation that is similar to the version that we already know, ignoring details that don't fit that prototype. If we encounter a description that counters the version that we usually teach, we must avoid the tendency to dismiss it, instead of allowing it to have some significance.


14)  Similarity doesn't prove causality. We occasionally find examples of someone noting similarities between two dances, and claiming, therefore, that one borrowed the idea from the other. Maybe so; but maybe not. For eons, humans have individually innovated creations that happen to be similar to a previous innovation, without having seen it.


Likewise, music composers often create a melody that happens to be similar to one of millions of previous melodies, without having heard the other melody, and copyright courts are filled with claims that one therefore borrowed from the other. Maybe so, but maybe they came up with it by themselves. There are only so many notes in a scale, and humans only have two feet, which often move in similar ways. And many dance patterns can easily be created by anyone. Avoid equating similarity with causality unless you have solid evidence to back it.

15)  Beware of the tendency to generalize. Our predisposition to perceive patterns and order keeps us from being overwhelmed with contradictory information. Our tendency to oversimplify keeps us sane. As mentioned in 13) above, we often don't even perceive information that doesn't fit our preconceptions, just as we derive gratification from inputs that support our beliefs.

But this aid to sanity is an enemy of dance research. History wasn't organized for history books. The interaction of social, political, gender, economic, aesthetic and personal variables, plus random chance, combine to form an exceedingly complex matrix where variations and exceptions outweigh continuity and consistency. Dance history is even more problematic because the actual evidence of past dances is so elusive. Dances existed for an intangible moment and then were gone without a trace, unless someone recorded their observations.  Before films and video, even the best of records were only fragmentary.

The resulting problems begin to multiply, and scholars can find the complexities and information gaps difficult to deal with, while their readers or students demand comprehensive simplicity. The better scholars have learned to accept contradictions and alternatives. They proceed their findings with "It may possibly be concluded that..." or "It is open to speculation whether..."  Beginners often overstate, saying, "This is the only correct way to do this step," or, "It was never done that way." With historical dance, the more we learn, the more we discover how little we know with certainty.

It's wise to avoid absolutes such as always and never. We continually discover exceptions. And absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because you haven't found something yet doesn't mean it never existed somewhere. 


Unfortunately, most of your students or readers won't want to hear this, and will tend to support the historian who makes the simplest statements and most sweeping generalizations. Just the opposite should be true. The human tendency to favor simplicity is worth resisting. Fight for the more complex truth.

16)  Remain flexible. In reconstructing a dance or formulating a theory, avoid becoming attached to the first conclusion that occurs to you, or to a preferred theory. Take your time, consider all possible alternatives, and continue to keep an open mind afterward. New information may reverse your current beliefs. If you change your mind, there may be critics who say, "But this is different from what you believed last year." Don't let their limitations become your own.


This guideline was first suggested to me by my first mentor and great inspiration, Dr. Ingrid Brainard of Boston, who was constantly revising her conclusions and reconstructions.

One way to stay flexible is to expand your dance training. Learn other forms of dance, to add variety to your present kinesthetic experience. We tend to interpret a written dance description in the ways that we are accustomed to moving. The more ways we learn to move, the more possibilities will occur to us.

17Share your findings. This is an ideal that is sometimes complicated by career development in academia, where scholars feel they must keep their resources and findings to themselves until they publish (or otherwise gain recognition for their work). It's an understandable dilemma. But if you are free from these conflicts, and if your goal is to further the world's understanding and appreciation of historical dance, then you will probably share your discoveries enthusiastically. It costs you little (once you pass it on, you haven't lost it), and your sharing often results in a reciprocation by fellow researchers. Other scholars can be seen as colleagues, assistants and resources, not as competitors.

18Credit other scholars for their work, whenever you use their research or reconstructions. The field of historic dance grows by the combined efforts of dance historians around the world, and we're all working to further the field—work that should be acknowledged. Citing the work of others also reinforces the ideal in #17, that other scholars can be seen as colleagues, assistants and resources, not as competitors.

If another historian presents material that you had already taught or published, it's very possible that they didn't know about your work (historians frequently discover the same dance), so I recommend politely informing them, instead of assuming the worst.

A part of citing others' work is acknowledging the person who discovered a dance that you use. Discovering a good dance in an old publication is like finding a needle in a haystack. It's difficult, and the ability to visualize the potential of a dance, by its written description alone, is an important skill. Acknowledge that skill in your credits, mentioning who discovered the dance, whenever you teach a dance that someone else has unearthed.

19Challenge others' conclusions, in a respectful and mature way. In most cases, a challenge will not be received as an affront, but rather as a helpful suggestion to re-check one's sources or underlying assumptions. Most of us look forward to these questions, as they result either in a correction of our errors, or a clarification of what we already knew. We appreciate the feedback.

Importantly, this means offering the challenge privately, ideally face-to-face, though e-mail works as well. Never criticize another scholar's work publicly, behind their back. That is universally regarded as unprofessional, usually the mark of an amateur's overreaching ambition to pose as superior, more informed, or smarter than an established scholar. When an experienced scholar needs to discuss an example of another's work that they disagree with, they never mention the other person's name.

20Organize your findings.  Before you know it, you will accumulate more information than your memory can retain. Some researchers scan and digitize their data, some still organize with paper notes and photocopies in file folders, while others simply dump everything into a box marked "research" (not recommended).

A method that works well for me is creating file folders (either digital or paper) on subjects within my field. Some subjects are general, such as "The Gentleman's Bow," "The Language of Flowers" or "Equality and Egalitarianism". Others are more detailed: "References to the Tilting of the Head in Waltzing", "Suggested Topics for Conversation in Quadrilles," "References to Women Prompting Dances in the Nineteenth Century." I read through each primary source with some 150 categories in mind, scan or photocopy each applicable reference, along with the source title, author and date, and drop the excerpt into the appropriate file. After cataloging hundreds of dance manuals this way, I have folders filled with references on a single subject, in chronological order, easy to find when needed.

Disclaimer: I would like to conclude by giving humble assurance that my rules, guidelines and a few examples of others' errors do not imply any superiority to other scholars. None at all. We're all still learning. Over the past four decades I have learned much through trial and error, and from fellow dance historians. My wish is simply to make this process easier for you by passing on what I've learned.

These guidelines may seem overwhelming to someone just starting to dig. Don't worry about it. Choose a dance and just a few resources. Don't fret about making mistakes at the outset. You will refine your process as you progress.

This field is still young and there is a vast amount of undiscovered material out there  One final warning: Once you get started, historic dance research may become an even greater obsession than dancing.

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