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Analysed by LR
THE HARLEM DANCER
by: Claude McKay (1890-1948)
Poem can be viewed on the internet.
The words ³applauding youths´ makes one think of innocence, happiness, gaiety, and fun, not of children but of young adults. This thought changes when continuing to reading the end of the first line; µlaughed with young prostitutes¶. The idea of innocence diminishes and thoughts of sex, misconduct, the lower classes and sleazy atmospheres enters one¶s mind. µYoung prostitutes¶ is a grim statement of girls recently making a commitment to a life in the lower sections of society. Being young means the hope of escaping or leaving that lifestyle. However a little more quality is gained from these young prostitutes since they are still in possession of their beauty, figures and spirits. These young laughing prostitutes may not realize that their earnings would dwindle with the course of time. The µapplauding youths¶ in conjunction with the µyoung prostitutes¶ describes the manners of a certain class not normally seen in brothels, as compared to the regular conduct in µstrip joints¶ such as loud jeering, whistling and catcalls.
Line two in the poem states that the youths are appreciative of watching someone who has a perfect figure who can easily be seen because she is dressed scantily or is wearing transparent clothing or is topless. They applaud her for this, viewing her perfect body as a work of art. The youths not only applaud but laugh at the movements her topless body makes as she sways.
The first quatrain introduces the setting of the poem. The term µblended flutes¶ delivers a different meaning when related to µblack players¶ and µpicnic day¶ from the last line of the first quatrain. the main character. Being able to perform µgracefully and calm¶ while displaying her perfect form through her wearing µlight gauze¶ shows that she is not ashamed of what she does. for this is not the normal description used for any female working in a nightclub. a description of her. It introduces themes of innocence. her occupation and her audience. She is aware of her abilities. µBlended flutes¶ in relation to these words shows that this is not the normal sound from a Harlem dancer and puts a question mark on her placement in her present situation. happiness. µBlack players¶ are not limited to seedy strip joints and brothels and that is only a small possibly hidden part of their society and culture. Quatrain Two The words µgraceful and calm¶ contrast with µhalf-clothed body sway¶. Her portrayal of someone who is graceful and calm puts her in a different class above the rest of the prostitutes. The normal description of a dancer who sways and is semi-nude is sensual and seductive. family. talents and her fine figure. melodious and sounds like a mixture of different accents that come from mixed or exotic ancestry. . A µpicnic day¶ represents fun. loose fitting and transparent apparel during her performance. Hence the reason for remaining elegant and composed while wearing. purity and clean recreational togetherness. forcibly or not. carefree attitudes and ignorance.The description of her voice to the µsound of blended flutes¶ depicts her voice as one that is pleasing to hear.
She is someone who had to endure struggle and adversity in her life and survived. µfalsely-smiling face¶. it also relates to Arabic dancers. The words. µproudlyswaying palm¶ and µstorm¶ to describe her. µblack players¶ is used in the last line of the first quatrain. This shows her as a person who has strong will power and feels pleasurable satisfaction from her dancing. adversity. morality and endurance. which is. µThe flower that blooms in adversity is the more beautiful of all¶. Quatrain Three The name of the poem says that the dancer is from Harlem. where mass migration of Blacks started in the area during the year 1904. The word µswarthy¶ tells us that her complexion is dark and hints again that she is a coloured person. a class that moves elegantly and unruffled. Her pride and endurance relates to a line of dialogue by the character µThe Emperor¶ in the 1998 animated movie. µMulan¶. Although µblack shiny curls¶ suggests the same. The way her curls fall beautifully on her neck adds to her form. . The words. by the placement of the words in the second to last line. These are two examples that hint to the ethnicity of the dancer. pride and emotional strength. This is a continuation from the first quatrain which concentrated on her physical attributes. The third hint comes from the first line of the third quatrain. grace. µLuxuriant fell¶ in the third quatrain connects to µgraceful and calm¶ in the second quatrain. thirteen years before the writing of this poem. voice and sway which connects to her beauty and grace.The narrator connects her with beautiful. The themes presented in this quatrain are about struggle. She has not diminished in beauty or glory due to her hardship but has µgrown lovelier¶. µLuxuriant¶ denotes a life of luxury that only the privileged could have. although she does not outwardly show whether she endured unscathed or not inwardly. The second quatrain describes her ability. powerful imagery of nature but uses the words.
Firstly. It was probably the tradition of some Harlem dancers to adorn themselves in a coin wrap. a person that they desire. every curl of her luxuriant hair.The µtossing of coins in praise¶ has two meanings in this poem. The boys whether high class or not would not bring their girlfriends to such a seedy place in the presence of youthful and still shapely young prostitutes. . Their feeling of her is of a more lustful nature. Secondly. µEven the girls devoured her shape¶. coins were pitched at her to show appreciation of her performance and for a continuation and inducement for a more flirtatious act. energetic males on the verge of becoming men who are amazed by what they see because they are probably not experienced with such activities. The bold-eyed boys depicted here meant that they are young. It is something that they probably had never seen before and they dared not turn away because they do not want to miss a minute of it. not enviously but in admiration. The patrons of the nightclub in this poem do not feel for her in a loving way. the sequins of her scanty dress made clinking appreciative noises that meshed with her dance that added to the hypnotic trance she had over the µbold-eyed boys¶ and µgirls¶. This was probably done by the µwine-flushed. They ate up every curve of her body. They could easily pay for her services and probably were of a higher class than her and look boldly or even down at her. The girls mentioned in this line would not mean any females that entered the nightclub with the boys. they wished that they were part of her. This is not a person that they admire but a person that they lust after. Even the girls looked at her. form and grace with admiration and probably wished that they had what this dancer has. The patrons of this nightclub who could afford wine over rum or alcohol looked on boldly as if they have a right to look as they please unabashedly. bold-eyed boys¶ as she is a dancer for money.
She saw and experienced poverty around her as well as the wealth of the other social classes. Even though she had to struggle and face adversity in her life. at least for the moment. belonging and dancing in Harlem. luxury. She is keenly aware of the realities of life.The third quatrain shows themes of hardship. poverty and coming of age. it was a controlled performance devoid of a happy. to hide her true feelings and the narrator of the poem detected her false smile and realised that she felt uncomfortable in a place that she believed she did not belong to and in her mind was socially beneath her. carefree attitude like her audience. Rhyming Couplet The dancer was falsely smiling for her audience to untruthfully display pleasure of what she was doing and appreciation for their presence. It would be thought of that her morals would be in question here but her µfalsely smiling face¶ and feelings of displacement in the µstrange place¶ say that she could not do any better at the time. promiscuity. she still had to endure working in the nightclub. which she regularly sees in the nightclub. desire/lust. class. in the company of young prostitutes and lustful young boys. the promiscuity of the patrons with the prostitutes and the admiration they all have for her. There are issues of morality which surfaces for her as she dances µhalf-clothed¶ in a nightclub. admiration. The dancer is aware of her ancestry and class by growing up. She has to use whatever talent or attribute available to her for her survival. wealth. beauty. but the truth was that it was an artificial smile to hide her insincerity. The Harlem dancer does not have the luxury of innocence and gaiety to let body and mind loose in her performance. Although she danced µgracefully and calm¶. . ancestry.
Therefore she uses the luxury of her perfect form. artful dancing. growing beauty and inner strength to capitalize on the human desire and lust of her patrons¶ world to endure and survive continuing adversity in her private world. .
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