The Water Dancer

by

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Water Dancing Symbol Analysis

Water Dancing Symbol Icon

Water dancing is an act that ties together many of the novel’s central themes: rebellion, freedom, love, skill, and memory. When Hiram was a little boy, his mother Rose and aunt Emma used to water dance, an act that involves dancing while holding a jar of water on one’s head and trying not to let any of it spill. It is one of the ways in which enslaved people steal moments of joy for themselves in the midst of the degradation and brutality of slavery. Moreover, it is also a chance for enslaved people to demonstrate their skill and talent to each other, which is significant given that slavery involves stealing enslaved people’s ingenuity in order for others to profit. The fact that this ritual involves water is also extremely important. Water is a symbol of rebellion for enslaved people, because when captives were transported from Africa to the Americas, many chose to leap into the water in order to refuse a life of bondage (even if that meant certain death). Water dancing is a way of honoring that legacy. For Hiram in particular, it is also one of the few memories he has of his mother and aunt, from whom he was separated after they were sold. Remembering Rose and Emma water dancing is what allows him to Conduct (travel through space instantly). By recalling the beautiful rebellions of his family members, Hiram is able to rebel himself and—several times—save his own life.

Water Dancing Quotes in The Water Dancer

The The Water Dancer quotes below all refer to the symbol of Water Dancing. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the One World edition of The Water Dancer published in 2019.
Chapter 11 Quotes

Maybe the power was in some way related to the block in my memory, and to unlock one was, perhaps, to unlock the other. And so in those dark and timeless hours in the pit, it became my ritual to reconstruct everything I had heard of her and all that I had seen of her in those moments down in the Goose. Rose of the kindest heart. Rose, sister of Emma. Rose the beautiful. Rose the silent. Rose the Water Dancer.

Related Characters: Hiram Walker (speaker), Rose, Emma
Related Symbols: Water Dancing, The River Goose
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 23 Quotes

“It’s just like dancing. Stay with the sound, stay with the story and you will be fine.”

Related Characters: Moses/Harriet Tubman (speaker), Hiram Walker
Related Symbols: Water Dancing
Page Number: 271
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 32 Quotes

“Was a big king who come over from Africa on the slave ship with his people. But when they got close to shore, him and his folk took over, killed all the white folks, threw ’em overboard, and tried to sail back home. But the ship run aground, and when the king look out, he see that the white folks’ army is coming for him with they guns and all. So the chief told his people to walk out into the water, to sing and dance as they walked, that the water-goddess brought ’em here, and the water-goddess would take ’em back home.

And when we dance as we do, with the water balanced on our head, we are giving praise to them who danced on the waves. We have flipped it, you see?”

Related Characters: Sophia (speaker)
Related Symbols: Water Dancing
Page Number: 379
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire The Water Dancer LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Water Dancer PDF

Water Dancing Symbol Timeline in The Water Dancer

The timeline below shows where the symbol Water Dancing appears in The Water Dancer. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Hiram sees Rose water dancing , wearing a large jar on her head filled with water which, despite her movements,... (full context)
Chapter 4
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
...men used to be in love with Rose. He reminisces about watching Emma and Rose water dance . (full context)
Chapter 6
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
...The conversation moves on; before long people start playing music, and Sophia gets up to water dance . Many others dance as well, but Hiram keeps his eyes on Sophia. Seeing him,... (full context)
Chapter 32
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
...Conductions to prove how it works. The final vision he summons is of a woman water dancing . The next night, Hiram asks Sophia if she’d ever seen someone water dance before.... (full context)
Chapter 33
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
...which he instantly recognizes as the one around Rose’s neck in the visions of her water dancing(full context)