The Harlem Dancer | Study Guide

Claude McKay

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The Harlem Dancer | Symbols


The Dancer

The titular dancer stands as a living emblem of the sweeping social changes brought by the Jazz Age. She also symbolizes the beautiful and passionate artistic expression of the Harlem Renaissance. In describing the dancer, Claude McKay (1889–1948) compares her singing voice to "blended flutes / Blown by black players upon a picnic day." This invokes the genre of jazz, in which flutes are an important instrument. Additionally, the dancer's scanty clothing reflects the social changes in postwar America. At the time of the poem's publication, America, along with much of the rest of the Western world, was experiencing a change of attitudes toward sexuality and dress code. The carnage of World War I (1914–18) had caused people to become disillusioned with previously held social values.

The Metaphorical Palm Tree

In lines 7 and 8, the speaker likens the dancer to a palm tree, specifically one "proudly-swaying" that seems "lovelier for passing through a storm." This important metaphor connects the temperate setting of Harlem, New York, with the tropical climate of the Caribbean, from which McKay hailed, and perhaps the dancer as well. The speaker perceives the dancer has lived a hard life, and he represents this with the image of a palm tree that has survived a storm and come out of the experience even more beautiful.


The coins the young men toss at the dancer could represent a few different things depending on the reader's interpretation. On one hand, they could represent a token of appreciation for the dancer's talent and beauty, but on the other hand, the coins could represent the audience's disdain for the dancer. By throwing money, they treat her like a prostitute, whether or not she is; the speaker never identifies her as such. That they throw coins—small denominations of money—suggests the dancer is not valued much. However, it is worth noting that quarters, half-dollars, and dollar coins in 1917 were worth quite a bit more than they are today. A quarter in 1917 is the equivalent of five dollars in 2019.

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