shuffle ali decolonization mohammed ali boxing dance

Let’s shuffle: An epistemology of dance, disruption and decoloniality

5 minutes to read
Ana Deumert

Pluriversality is an important concept in contemporary decolonial theory. In this column, Ana Deumert uses the metaphor of the shuffle – an African-American vernacular dance step – to conceptualize pluriversal, or polyrhythmic, modes of thinking about the world. 

Sometimes misreadings can be productive. I call them ‘slips of the eye’. Like ‘slips of the tongue’ (as well as ‘slips of the pen’ or ‘slips of the ear’) they draw our attention to alternative interpretations. Slips of tongue, or the eye, might – as Sigmund Freud suggested in the Psychopathology of Everyday Life(1901) – reveal our repressed thoughts and desires. Or they might, as Victoria Fromkin argued, tell us something about the workings of language and cognition. (Scientific American, 1973)

Why was it that the word shuffle captured my imagination? 

Whatever the reason, these slips can be fortious, introducing creativity and newness into language and thought. They are a special case of the process of resignification: they are repetitions that are also reformulations, albeit accidental ones (on resignification as a political act see Judith Butler, 1997, Excitable Speech).

Slips of the eye: from shuttling to shuffling

This column started with such a ‘slip of the eye’: I misread a metaphor used by Suresh Canagarajah in his work on multilingualism. Suresh Canagarajah (2006, Toward a Written Pedagogy) writes about ‘shuttling between languages’, but I read – and did so for many years – ‘shuffling between languages’. 

I only discovered my mistake recently, when I wanted to work more carefully with the concept of shuffling. As I went back to the source, I realized that I had misread the original text – a ‘slip of the eye’. Suresh Canagarajah’s idea of shuttling is an excellent metaphor, bringing in notions of travel and mobility, and thus seeing multilingualism as a movement between linguistic resources (as well as audiences, contexts and discourses). 

The Ali shuffle was a playful, yet serious, move, a dance that disrupted the conventional timing of boxing footwork, and created a unique aesthetic.

Maybe I should have left it there and simply acknowledged that I misread. But it was my misreading that led me to delve deeper into the many meanings of the word shuffle, using it as a springboard to think about epistemology. Why was it that the word shuffle captured my imagination? 

The Ali shuffle: grounded, rapid and disruptive

Shuttling describes a smooth movement, an unhindered and usually swift mobility between places, even to the moon (as in ‘space shuttle’). 

Shuffling is a different movement: a sliding or dragging of one’s feet, of keeping them close to the ground (‘he stood, waiting and shuffling his feet’); but there is also swiftness and rapidity (‘she shuffled the cards before dealing them’). The shuffle is a dance step – and it is here, in dance (and music) that I locate the conceptual and epistemological promise of shuffling. 

Consider Muhammad Ali’s shuffle: a step, indeed a kind of dance, that was about speed and rapid movement, performed to distract the opponent just before throwing a punch. The Ali shuffle was a playful, yet serious, move, a dance that disrupted the conventional timing of boxing footwork, and created a unique aesthetic. The New York Post described the Ali shuffle as a ‘dizzying, mesmerizing dance.


The shuffle and its history

The history of the shuffle goes back to African dance traditions, which survived the violence of slavery. (This history is discussed in Jazz Dance. The Story of African American Vernacular Dance, by Marshall and Jean Stearns, 1985).

An early example is the ring shout, a spiritual dance that was practiced by slaves and their descendents in the United States and parts of the Caribbean. Central to the dance was a flat-footed shuffle that was danced counter-clockwise in a circle. What sounds like an easy step – a mere shuffle – is in fact an intricate polyrhythmic movement: ‘With both feet tap, making the sounds at nearly the same time’, wrote Henry Tucker in 1874 (cited in Stearns and Stearns, 1985, p. 38). 

The shuffle reappears in vaudeville and in early jazz performances. It is resignified in the twisting steps of the Charlston, the Lindy Hop and the Big Apple; it was re-worked by hip hop and pantsula dancers from the 1980s onwards. It is a step that is grounded, polyrhythmic, and that allowed for improvisation, creativity and even a dose of eccentricity. 

Syncopation: pushing the metric framework

A central feature of the shuffle is syncopation: metre changes, accented cross-rhythms, and in-between beats. The shuffle is about playing rhythms against rhythms, pushing against the metric framework (which dominates in European music; for a music-theoretical discussion see Jay Rahn, 1996, Turning the Analysis Around).

Ralph Ellison described syncopation metaphorically in his novel The Invisible Man(1952): ‘it gives one a slightly different sense of time, you are never quite on the beat. Sometimes you are ahead, sometimes behind’. In Syncopated Communities: Dancing with Ellison, Josua Hall suggests that syncopation can be understood as a metaphor for the endurance of black communities in the United States: ‘in other words, in order to survive, the black communities have had (and continue to have) to find the corporeal spaces between the notes of the basic metrical pattern of white America’ (p. 69).

When in 1921, Shuffle Along, the first black musical premiered on Broadway, the lyrics of the theme song emphasized syncopation as a core feature of the shuffle: 

            Everyone in town is always singing this song,

            Shuffle along, shuffle along,

            Doctors, bakers, undertakers, do a step,

            That’s full of pep and syncopation.

There is unpredictability in the shuffle, it is a move that has the potential to disrupt our expectations, energetically. 


Shuffle epistemology

In approaching the shuffle as an epistemology, I take my cue from Clyde Wood’s reflections on blues epistemology (Development Arrested – The Blues and Plantation Power in the Missisippi Delta, 1998). Clyde Wood proceeds from the idea that everyday ways of being, talking and creating, are not simply practices, but also epistemologies. They embody ways of knowing, and ways of being, and can be examined for their analytical potentional (also Amiri Baraka, The Blues People, 1961, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. The Signifying Monkey, 1988). The blues, argues Clyde Wood, is a working-class epistemology of the dialectics of despair and hope. It is a form of social critique, rooted in experiences of dispossession and oppression. 

What kind of epistemology then is the shuffle? Firstly, and this is important given the recent turn towards the body, it is an embodied epistemology that reminds us that cognition is never separate from our bodies. Turning to dance as metaphor and inspiration allows us to re-conceptualize – and indeed embody – the work we do when we are thinking, and engage in the formulation of new theories and ideas. 

The shuffle is an epistemological project of polyrhythmic disruption. 


Secondly, the shuffle emphasises twists and turns, as well as – importantly – disruption and thus the unexpected. It is an epistemology that encourages us to think (and act) polyrhythmically and syncopatically, articulating ideas that might be a bit off-beat, that sit in-between other ideas, thus unsettling the rhythm of our thinking (and speaking/writing/being).

Towards decoloniality of thought

The shuffle – as an epistemology and thinking tool – works well with recent decolonial theory, as formulated, for example, by Walter Mignolo or Buaventura de Sousa Santos. In The End of the Cognitive Empire (2018) Buaventura de Sousa Santos emphasises the importance of thinking pluriversally(rather than universally). But what precisely is pluriversal thinking? When do we know that we are thinking pluriversally (and not simply locally)? 

I suggest that pluriversal thinking happens when we do the cognitive equivalent of a shuffle; when we skip a beat, add a beat, move rapidly and swiftly, but unexpectedly, and thus create a moment of surprise. The shuffle allows us to occupy, and here I rephrase Josua Hall (op cit.), a corporeal and intellectual space between the beats of the regular metric pattern of dominant and dominanting theories. It helps us to explore the interstices and the margins, as well as the messiness of social life. We shuffle between categories, concepts, languages and contexts, inhabiting multiplicity at any moment as heel and toe touch the gound in quick succession. The aim is, following the theme song of Shuffle Along, to create scholarly practices and knowledges that are ‘full of pep and syncopation’.

The shuffle is an epistemological project of polyrhythmic disruption.