"Flashdance" turns 40, but our attitudes about working-class artists still need to grow

Is it so hard to believe that a welder might also be a dancer?

By Alison Stine

Staff Writer

Published April 15, 2023 10:59AM (EDT)

Jennifer Beals in Flashdance promo photos circa 1983. (Images Press/IMAGES/Getty Images)
Jennifer Beals in Flashdance promo photos circa 1983. (Images Press/IMAGES/Getty Images)

Launcher of a thousand off-the-shoulder sweatshirts, popularizer of leg warmers: it's "Flashdance" and the film turns 40 this year, just like some of us are or have too. It's hard to believe a beloved film can be aging so, though a rewatch reveals some of the racist and homophobic jokes that defined its time. The film is also chock-full of very high-cut leotards that scream 1983 and more dance interludes than a high school musical.

"Flashdance" was star Jennifer Beals' breakthrough role, responsible for her winning an NAACP Image Award and receiving a Golden Globe nomination, and the movie stayed with us: the character of Alex, a loner and dreamer who works as a welder during the day and a bar dancer at night, while dreaming of more. Her dream feels different now. We're all older and we've been through the world. We know how it chews us up and spits us out, and we know to make it, like Alex does, we need more than just one shot. But Alex's rise from welder/bar dancer to different, "respected" dancer isn't so surprising, and the film presenting this as a shocker may say more about how we view working-class artists than any personal, well-choreographed triumph. 

"If a dream comes true just one time it can change your life for all time," the velvety-voiceover for the "Flashdance" trailer promises. Directed by Adrian Lyne, the film follows Alex, who works at a steel mill in Pittsburgh and lives in an old warehouse with her adorably tough dog, Grunt. Nightly, she performs in the cabaret at Mawby's, a gritty neighborhood bar and grill that also stages burlesque performances.

There are multiple kinds of art in "Flashdance." There are the inventive, often dazzling and highly stylized acts of Mawby's dancers with at times grotesque makeup, involved props and changing backdrops (and the infamous water that Alex rains down upon herself via a pull-chord). When it comes to the bar dancers and their acts, I'm reminded of the Billy Joel "Piano Man" lyric: "Man, what are you doing here?" There's also the short order cook (Kyle T. Heffner) who wants to be a comedian, part of the film's mini-"Fame" charm; that classic film about performing art students in New York came out only three years before "Flashdance." Alex's best friend Jeannie (Sunny Johnson) is training to be a figure skater, and trying to reach the starry potential her skater mom failed to reach. There's also the art that Alex aspires to, which she and others view as higher than her Mawby's dancing: the Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance and Repertory.

There's a lot of dreams deferred and wish fulfillment in "Flashdance." Along with Jeannie's mom, there's beloved mentor and friend to Alex: Lilia Skala as retired ballerina Hanna, who first plants the seed in Alex about the Conservatory. Alex has something to shoot for. She has something beyond her manual labor job.

Being working class and being an artist don't mix in "Flashdance." 

Alex's job is a big deal in "Flashdance." The rich, ex-wife of her boss (soon to become her boyfriend — yes, it's problematic), sneers at her, asking if the girl is really a welder. Alex is only 18, which is another problem, given that the boss-lover (Michael Nouri as Nick) is quite a bit older, established and very wealthy, quite literally The Man. There are multiple, stylized shots of Alex in her welder mask, sparks flying poetically. The work is romanticized to be like a kind of dance.

But being working class and being an artist don't mix in "Flashdance." Cook Richie's show biz dreams are crushed by Los Angeles and he returns home and to Mawby's. When Jeannie's dreams are also crushed, she turns to working at Zanzibar. The opposite of Mawby's friendly and arty burlesque, the Misfits to its Jem and the Holograms, Zanzibar is a literal strip club where the women are referred to repeatedly as "bimbos" and the dancing is presented in completely different terms: this isn't art and it isn't acceptable. Alex drags her friend out of the club. Nearly naked, covered by Alex's coat, Jeannie drops her tip money in the street. She cries, on her knees trying to grab the dollar bills in the puddles. That image will stay with you.  

However, Alex has bootstraps she can pull up. Specifically, she has big work boots, which the camera also lingers on multiple times. Such a contrast to the dainty, white leather slippers and pink toe shoes of her fellow Conservatory applicants. Though they're all young, thin and very in shape, Alex is not like those other girls. Her hair is wild, a mess of curls. She wears baggy, dark work clothes, stained with her lower class status. 

The film also wants us to believe, in that glossy '80s way, that if Alex can make it, any of us can.

Alex makes it. There was never any doubt. But is it really the long shot the film wants us to think? 

But Alex is 18, old to begin ballet training yet not at all impossible or unprecedented in the world of professional dance. She had the support of an actual ballerina for years. And she has the support of Nick who, along with being rich, has connections. You have to be invited to audition for the Conservatory. Alex has no formal training so her resume wouldn't impress anyone. Nick makes a call to get her that audition, which at first angers her, but at least she realizes this is a shot she has to take, no matter how it came to her.  

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Of course Alex makes it. There was never any doubt. But is it really the long shot the film wants us to think? In the final, thrilling dance scene when Alex kills her audition for the severe panel of judges, she makes a flying leap across the floor. Young, talented and connected, maybe Alex doesn't have to jump that hard or high to get in, and it shouldn't be inconceivable, a marvel or even uncommon for a working-class girl to be an artist, to be a really great artist. 

But rewatching "Flashdance," one of my favorite films as a child, now that I'm closer to the age of the film itself, I'm drawn suddenly to the dance company's secretary, an unnamed, minor role played by Lucy Lee Flippin. Slightly suspicious of Alex at first, by the girl's second time in her office, finally to leave with an application, you can tell this working woman is rooting for her.  When Alex makes her big leap, she cries.

By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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Art Artists Ballet Class Commentary Dance Flashdance Gen X Jennifer Beals Movies Working Class