Claude McKay

The Harlem Dancer by Claude McKay

‘The Harlem Dancer’ by Claude McKay is a thoughtful poem about a dancer’s inner life. It speaks on the duality of what people see and what people experience.

The Harlem Dancer‘ explores the persona a nightclub dancer displays and the deeper, more complex inner thoughts she’s experiencing. It was first published in 1917 and then included in Harlem Shadows, one of McKay’s best-known collections and the one that brought him into the public spotlight. It was also included in James Weldon Johnson’s The Book of American Negro Poetry.

The Harlem Dancer by Claude McKay


The Harlem Dancer’ by Claude McKay explores a dancer’s inner world and the dignity with which she comports herself.

In the first lines of ‘The Harlem Dancer,’ the speaker begins by describing the audience in a club. There are young people and sex workers. They laugh and enjoy themselves as another young woman dances on stage. She sang beautifully and moved to the music perfectly. The poet uses a few examples of figurative language to describe her movements, comparing her to a palm tree during a storm. As the poem progresses, the poet spends time describing the audience and their red, drunk faces and then brings in his speaker’s opinion. The dancer’s smile, the speaker decides, is not a real one. She wasn’t present at that moment as everyone else was. Her thoughts were somewhere else.


Throughout this poem, the poet engages with themes of appearance and reality. He also explores the woman’s beauty. The poet’s exploration of the woman’s movements and beauty is not unfamiliar in his work. He often spent time celebrating Black beauty and the strength and dignity of Black women. By suggesting there was more to this woman than meets the eye, he humanizes her. This makes it clear to the reader that the dancer is more than just a beautiful object. She’s a whole person with an inner life that’s different from the reality she’s presenting.

Structure and Form

The Harlem Dancer’ by Claude McKay is a Shakespearean sonnet. This means that the poem contains fourteen lines. It also conforms to the rhyme scheme of ABABCCDEFEFGG. The poem can be separated into three quatrains, or sets of two lines, and one final rhyming couplet. ‘The Harlem Dancer’ is also written in iambic pentameter, the standard meter that most sonnets, Shakespearean or Petrarchan, are written in.

Literary Devices

Throughout this poem, McKay makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:

  • Metaphor: a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as.” For example, in lines seven and eight, the poet compares the dancer to a “proudly-swaying palm.”
  • Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “Blown” and “black” in line four and “light” and “loose” in line six.
  • Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transition between lines one and two as well as seven and eight.

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-4

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.

In the first lines of ‘The Harlem Dancer,’ the speaker beings in medias res. Meaning, he puts the reader directly into the middle of the action without first setting the scene. The speaker is describing the audience at a nightclub. They’re young, some are with prostitutes, and they are all drinking. They’re focused on “her.” The “her” in these lines is the dancer from the title.

All that’s known about her is that she’s a Black woman from Harlem. She’s beautiful, has a wonderful singing voice, and is skilled at dancing. She moves to the music perfectly, and her “voice was like the sound of blended flutes.” This is an example of figurative language, specifically a simile. It’s expanded into the next lines. They’re flutes “Blown by black players upon a picnic day.” This suggests there’s something inherently “Black” about her voice. It connects her to broader cultural history. This is something that expands the scene beyond the nightclub and gives the dancer a deeper sense of identity.

Lines 5-8

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.

In the second quatrain of the sonnet, the speaker emphasizes how calmly and gracefully the dancer did her job. She’s barely clothed but appeared to the speaker to be “a proudly-swaying palm.” She has dignity and pride despite the situation she is in. This speaks to a strength of character and a depth that the other nightclub visitors are likely not tapped into. The metaphor, like the simile before it, is extended into the next line. The poet alludes to the woman’s ability to withstand storms and maintain her grace. This suggests, again, a depth to the woman’s personality. She’s more than just a dancer. She’s a Black woman maintaining grace and dignity in the face of what could be an uncomfortable and deeming situation. Furthermore, she’s strong in a way the speaker admires.

Lines 9-14

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.

In the third and final quatrain, the speaker uses words like “swarthy” and “Luxuriant” to describe the “shiny curls” of her hair. This description, which elevates her further in the reader’s mind, is juxtaposed against the “wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls.” These intoxicated onlookers don’t appreciate the woman in the same way the speaker is. They have one thing on their mind, a desire to devour “her shape with eager, passionate gaze.” They’re thinking about sex and nothing else.

In contrast, the speaker notes her false smile and realizes that her “self was not in that strange place.” Her mind was elsewhere, considering, perhaps, her life and her goals.


Who is the speaker in ‘The Harlem Dancer?’

It’s unclear who the speaker is in this piece besides the fact that he’s a visitor at a nightclub, is not intoxicated like the other visitors are, and has a keen eye. Meaning, he’s noting things about the dancer that others wouldn’t.

What is the tone of ‘The Harlem Dancer?’

The tone is respectful and analytical. The speaker spends the lines determining exactly how the dancer moves and what it makes him think of. He appreciates and represents her dignity and repetitively returns to it to make sure the reader does too.

Why did Claude McKay write ‘The Harlem Dancer?’

The tone is respectful and analytical. The speaker spends the lines determining exactly how the dancer moves and what it makes him think of. He appreciates and represents her dignity and repetitively returns to it to make sure the reader does too.

What is the setting of ‘The Harlem Dancer?’

The setting is in a nightclub in Harlem, a neighborhood in New York City. It was the center of the Harlem Renaissance, a movement the poet was closely aligned with. It’s sometime around 1917.

What is the mood of ‘The Harlem Dancer?’

The mood of this peace is appreciative and contemplative. The reader should walk away thinking about the dancer’s life and what she might’ve been thinking about while performing. They should also have a new appreciation for people in a similar profession.

Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed ‘The Harlem Dancer’ should also consider reading some other Claude McKay poems. For example:

  • Harlem Shadows’ – memorably addressee the lives of Black sex workers in Harlem. The poet describes their experience while also acknowledging their strength.
  • America’ – balances ideas of loving and hating the United States. McKay explores the good parts of the country, the strength and vigor it contains as well as the bad.
  • I Know My Soul’ – discusses the importance of being honest with ourselves if we wish to find true peace.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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