The Harlem Dancer

The Harlem Dancer

By Claude McKay

Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes
And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway;
Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes
Blown by black players upon a picnic day.
She sang and danced on gracefully and calm,
The light gauze hanging loose about her form;
To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm
Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.
Upon her swarthy neck black shiny curls
Luxuriant fell; and tossing coins in praise,
The wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls,
Devoured her shape with eager, passionate gaze;
But looking at her falsely-smiling face,
I knew her self was not in that strange place.

Summary of The Harlem Dancer

  • Popularity of “The Harlem Dancer”: “The Harlem Dancer” by Claude McKay, a famous Jamaican American writer and poet, is an iconic poetic piece about the Harlem Renaissance. It was first published in 1917 in a magazine, Seven Arts. Interestingly, McKay did not publish it in his own name. He adopted the pen name of Eli Edwards instead. The popularity of the poem lies in the honest depiction of the prostitute and her sensual attraction for the young visitors.
  • The Harlem Dancer” As a Representative Harlem Renaissance: The poet opens the poem with the dancer prostitute showing her dancing skills to the youth in a nightclub where they are showering praises on her. McKay praises her voice and compares it to flutes. He goes on to admire her grace in dancing, saying she seems to him a palm with white and light gauze around her. It seems that she has become even lovelier than before when she dances, while the boys are tossing coins to praise her beauty seeing her shiny curls. It seems that the boys are devouring her luxurious body through their gaze. However, the poet is aware that she is adept in bedecking her face with a false smile in a way that she does not look strange at this place. She is rather dexterous in dealings with the boys.
  • Major Themes in “The Harlem Dancer”: African American beauty, Harlem, and nightclub pretensions are three major themes of this poem. McKay has beautifully shown the world of Harlem through this nightclub and the African American dancers. He praises her profusely to show that even an African American lady could make the boys gaze at her raptly instead of just throwing a passing look at her. Yet, despite this enjoyment, the smile on her face is just pretension and that she is not strange in this world, for she is a skillful dancer and singer.

Analysis of Literary Devices Used In “The Harlem Dancer”

literary devices bring variety into simple poetic pieces. Their appropriate use helps the writers to convey their thoughts appealingly. Claude McKay has also used some literary devices in this poem whose analysis is as follows.

  1. Assonance: Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in the same line such as the sound of /e/ in “To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm”, the sound of /o/ in “Grown lovelier for passing through a storm” and of /o/ in “Blown by black players upon a picnic day.”
  2. Consonance: Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line such as the sound of /h/ and /r/ in “And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway”, the sound of /d/ and /l/ in “She sang and danced on gracefully and calm” and the sound of /n/ in “I knew her self was not in that strange place.”
  3. Enjambment: It is defined as a thought in verse that does not come to an end at a line break; rather, it rolls over to the next line. For example;

Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.
Upon her swarthy neck black shiny curls
Luxuriant fell; and tossing coins in praise.

  1. Imagery: Imagery is used to make readers perceive things involving their five senses. Claude McKay has used imagery in this poem such as “Blown by black players upon a picnic day”, “The light gauze hanging loose about her form” and “The wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls.”
  2. Metaphor: It is a figure of speech in which an implied comparison is made between the objects that are different. The poet has used an extended metaphor of a dancing singer to show Harlem and its beauty.
  3. Symbolism: Symbolism is using symbols to signify ideas and qualities, giving them symbolic meanings that are different from literal meanings. The poet has used symbols such as flute, gauze and curls to show the beauty of Harlem’s dancer.
  4. Simile: The poem also shows the use of similes such as;
  5. Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes.

Analysis of Poetic Devices Used in “The Harlem Dancer”

Poetic and literary devices are the same, but a few are used only in poetry. Here is the analysis of some of the poetic devices used in this poem.

  1. Rhyme Scheme: As the poem is a sonnet, it follows ABABCDCDEFEFGG.
  2. Stanza: A stanza is a poetic form of some lines. This is a single stanza sonnet.
  3. Sestet: Last six lines of a sonnet are called sestet as the last lines of “The Harlem Dancer” shows.
  4. Octave: The first eight lines make up an octave or octet. This sonnet has one octave.

Quotes to be Used

These lines from “The Harlem Dancer” are suitable to use when talking about the beauty of a singer.

She sang and danced on gracefully and calm,
The light gauze hanging loose about her form;
To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm
Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.