The words applauding 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; laughed with young prostitutes. The idea of innocence diminishes and thoughts of sex, misconduct, the lower classes and sleazy atmospheres enters ones mind. Young 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 applauding youths in conjunction with the young prostitutes describes the manners of a certain class not normally seen in brothels, as compared to the regular conduct in strip 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 description of her voice to the sound of blended flutes depicts her voice as one that is pleasing to hear, melodious and sounds like a mixture of different accents that come from mixed or exotic ancestry. The term blended flutes delivers a different meaning when related to black players and picnic day from the last line of the first quatrain. Black players are not limited to seedy strip joints and brothels and that is only a small possibly hidden part of their society and culture. A picnic day represents fun, family, purity and clean recreational togetherness. Blended 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.
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The first quatrain introduces the setting of the poem, the main character, a description of her, her occupation and her audience. It introduces themes of innocence, happiness, carefree attitudes and ignorance.
The words graceful and calm contrast with half-clothed body sway. The normal description of a dancer who sways and is semi-nude is sensual and seductive. Her portrayal of someone who is graceful and calm puts her in a different class above the rest of the prostitutes, for this is not the normal description used for any female working in a nightclub.
Being able to perform gracefully and calm while displaying her perfect form through her wearing light gauze shows that she is not ashamed of what she does. She is aware of her abilities, talents and her fine figure. Hence the reason for remaining elegant and composed while wearing, forcibly or not, loose fitting and transparent apparel during her performance.
The narrator connects her with beautiful, powerful imagery of nature but uses the words, proudly-swaying palm and storm to describe her. This shows her as a person who has strong will power and feels pleasurable satisfaction from her dancing. She is someone who had to endure struggle and adversity in her life and survived, although she does not outwardly show whether she endured unscathed or not inwardly, by the placement of the words in the second to last line; falselysmiling face. Her pride and endurance relates to a line of dialogue by the character The Emperor in the 1998 animated movie, Mulan, which is, The flower that blooms in adversity is the more beautiful of all. She has not diminished in beauty or glory due to her hardship but has grown lovelier.
The second quatrain describes her ability, grace, pride and emotional strength. This is a continuation from the first quatrain which concentrated on her physical attributes. The themes presented in this quatrain are about struggle, adversity, morality and endurance.
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; thirteen years before the writing of this poem. The words, black players is used in the last line of the first quatrain. These are two examples that hint to the ethnicity of the dancer. The third hint comes from the first line of the third quatrain. The word swarthy tells us that her complexion is dark and hints again that she is a coloured person. Although black shiny curls suggests the same, it also relates to Arabic dancers.
The way her curls fall beautifully on her neck adds to her form, voice and sway which connects to her beauty and grace. Luxuriant denotes a life of luxury that only the privileged could have; a class that moves elegantly and unruffled. The words, Luxuriant fell in the third quatrain connects to graceful and calm in the second quatrain.
The tossing of coins in praise has two meanings in this poem. Firstly, coins were pitched at her to show appreciation of her performance and for a continuation and inducement for a more flirtatious act. This was probably done by the wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys as she is a dancer for money. Secondly, 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 bold-eyed boys and girls. It was probably the tradition of some Harlem dancers to adorn themselves in a coin wrap.
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. They could easily pay for her services and probably were of a higher class than her and look boldly or even down at her. Even the girls looked at her, not enviously but in admiration. The girls mentioned in this line would not mean any females that entered the nightclub with the boys. 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. The bold-eyed boys depicted here meant that they are young, energetic males on the verge of becoming men who are amazed by what they see because they are probably not experienced with such activities. 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. Even the girls devoured her shape, form and grace with admiration and probably wished that they had what this dancer has. They ate up every curve of her body, every curl of her luxuriant hair; they wished that they were part of her.
The patrons of the nightclub in this poem do not feel for her in a loving way. Their feeling of her is of a more lustful nature. This is not a person that they admire but a person that they lust after, a person that they desire. The third quatrain shows themes of hardship, beauty, desire/lust, admiration, class, promiscuity, ancestry, luxury, wealth, poverty and coming of age.
The dancer was falsely smiling for her audience to untruthfully display pleasure of what she was doing and appreciation for their presence, but the truth was that it was an artificial smile to hide her insincerity, 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.
The Harlem dancer does not have the luxury of innocence and gaiety to let body and mind loose in her performance. Although she danced gracefully and calm, it was a controlled performance devoid of a happy, carefree attitude like her audience.
Even though she had to struggle and face adversity in her life, she still had to endure working in the nightclub. There are issues of morality which surfaces for her as she dances half-clothed in a nightclub; in the company of young prostitutes and lustful young boys. It would be thought of that her morals would be in question here but her falsely smiling face and feelings of displacement in the strange place say that she could not do any better at the time. She has to use whatever talent or attribute available to her for her survival, at least for the moment.
The dancer is aware of her ancestry and class by growing up, belonging and dancing in Harlem. She saw and experienced poverty around her as well as the wealth of the other social classes. She is keenly aware of the realities of life, which she regularly sees in the nightclub; the promiscuity of the patrons with the prostitutes and the admiration they all have for her.
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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