The Harlem Dancer | Study Guide

Claude McKay

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The Harlem Dancer | Summary



Lines 1–4

"The Harlem Dancer" begins with the speaker setting up the scene and introducing the titular character, the dancer. The scene is a bar or club somewhere in Harlem. Although the speaker doesn't describe the surroundings in depth, there's a strong sense that it is a loud place, with descriptions of laughter, applause, and singing. Aside from the speaker, the dancer's audience consists of young men, referred to as "applauding youths," and their dates, "young prostitutes."

The dancer's body is described as "perfect" and "half-clothed," suggesting she is performing a striptease and the club is a burlesque house, the early 20th-century version of a strip club. She is also singing as she dances, and her voice is compared to the sound of many flutes playing in unison "upon a picnic day."

Lines 5–8

The speaker continues to describe the dancer's performance, saying she dances and sings "gracefully and calm." Her clothing is a "light gauze" hanging loosely from her body. The speaker then likens the dancer to a "proudly-swaying" palm tree that looks only more beautiful after having survived a storm.

Lines 9–12

The speaker describes the dancer's curly hair and the way it falls "luxuriant" over her shoulders. As she dances, the inebriated ("wine-flushed") young men toss coins onto the stage to show their admiration for her performance. The speaker notes that both the young men and their female dates are in awe of the dancer's beauty and grace, "devour[ing] her shape with eager, passionate gaze."

Lines 13–14

In the final lines, the speaker observes the dancer's face and expression. He notices that her expression is vacant and she doesn't seem to be aware of her surroundings; "her self [is] not in that strange place."


Rhyme Scheme and Meter

As a sonnet, "The Harlem Dancer" is written with a set rhyme scheme and in iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is a metrical structure with 10 syllables per line. Each line comprises five feet known as iambs, each made up of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. Iambic pentameter is a very old metrical form and historically has been one of the most popular. It is the standard meter for sonnets, heroic couplet poetry, and blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter).

Regarding the meter in "The Harlem Dancer," Claude McKay's (1889–1948) contemporary Countee Cullen (1903–46) wrote that the use of the "slow, dignified" sonnet form to describe the "lascivious world of the Harlem nightclub" was clever and apt. Cullen claimed that the sonnet form is naturally "contemplative and often sad," and this fits with Cullen's identification of a central theme of the poem: human dignity. Rather than being about carnal desires or a celebration of the Harlem nightlife, "The Harlem Dancer" is about a tragic, beautiful artist unfairly treated like a harlot. Iambic pentameter, according to Cullen, is the perfect vehicle for this mood.

Regarding the rhyme scheme, McKay elected to employ the ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme scheme associated with English poet William Shakespeare (1564–1616), who popularized the scheme in his sonnets. Technically, the poem is not a true Shakespearean sonnet because it lacks that form's specific stanza structure of three quatrains, or four-line stanzas, followed by a couplet and instead is written as a single 14-line stanza. In addition to the end rhymes, the poem also features a few instances of internal rhyming, where words within the same line rhyme. This occurs in line 1 ("youths" and "prostitutes") and line 5 ("on" and "calm").

Similes and Metaphors

McKay uses figurative language in "The Harlem Dancer" to describe the poem's titular character. The first example of figurative language is a simile in lines 3 and 4. A simile is a language device that serves to compare two dissimilar things using the word like or as. Because similes work by exaggeration or by comparing two things that are different in major ways, similes can imbue the compared object with qualities of the thing to which it is being compared. Many similes in common use can be quite simple, such as "He's as big as a moose." The simile McKay uses is a more elaborate one. He compares the dancer's voice to a musical instrument: "Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes / Blown by black players upon a picnic day." In this case, not only is the dancer's voice like the music of multiple flutes, but these are specific flutes played by a specific kind of people in a specific situation. It is possible these "blended flutes" on a "picnic day" are meant to evoke quiet, gentle rural images, contrasting the dancer's soft voice with the harsh and loud environment of the city.

McKay makes use of a metaphor in lines 7 and 8. A metaphor is also a comparative language device, but unlike a simile, a metaphor doesn't use the words like or as. Metaphors can be broken down structurally into two main components: the tenor and the vehicle. The tenor is the thing being compared, while the vehicle is the thing the tenor is being compared to. In the case of McKay's metaphor ("she seemed a proudly-swaying palm / Grown lovelier for passing through a storm"), the tenor is the dancer, while the vehicle is the "proudly-swaying palm." Like the simile before, this metaphor is complicated. It is not just any palm tree but one that has survived a storm. This not only confers beauty and grace on the dancer but also alludes to her having lived a difficult life.

Alliteration, Assonance, and Consonance

In addition to rhyming—both at the ends of lines and within lines—"The Harlem Dancer" also employs the sound devices alliteration, assonance, and consonance. These three sound devices can be components of rhyming, but they are distinct from rhyming. Alliteration is defined as the repetition of sounds or letters at the beginnings of words. Examples of alliteration in the poem are found in line 1 ("youths," "young"), line 4 ("blown by black," "players upon a picnic"), line 7 ("proudly-swaying palm"), and line 11 ("bold-eyed boys").

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds within and among words. Examples here are numerous, but the best are in line 1 ("applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes"), line 4 ("players upon a picnic day"), line 5 ("danced on gracefully and calm"), and line 7 ("to me she seemed").

Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in close succession. Examples in "The Harlem Dancer" are in line 1 ("applauding youths laughed"), line 3 ("sound of blended"), and line 11 ("wine-flushed, bold-eyed"). Together these sound devices accentuate the rhyming and help to create a musical sound in the poem.

Race in "The Harlem Dancer"

While the speaker never states outright that the "youths" described in the poem are white, there is textual evidence supporting this possibility. Line 11 describes the young men as "wine-flushed," meaning their drunkenness has caused their faces to redden. That their faces can redden suggests that either the young men are African Americans of light skin tone or they are white men visiting Harlem. The latter possibility would not be surprising. While Harlem was a majority black neighborhood, during its heyday in the Harlem Renaissance it was frequented by white New Yorkers intent on enjoying its nightlife, particularly jazz music.

While the race of the young men's dates (the "young prostitutes") isn't identified, it's possible that they, like the dancer, are African American. The dancer herself is described with black features, notably her "swarthy neck" and her curly hair. While the speaker never identifies his own race, it is reasonable to assume that he, like the poet McKay, is African American and—probably unlike the young men—a Harlem local.

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