As Flashdance turns 40 years old this year, the time has never been better to look back on how one seemingly flashy dance movie revealed plenty about female agency, dreams and desire – Hollie Geraghty gets on her dancing shoes to investigate.
“You have no right to help me,” snaps Alex, the welder by day, dancer by night of the 1983 dance classic Flashdance, played by Jennfier Beals. In the final act of the film, shortly after celebrating the best news of her life – landing an audition at the prestigious Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance and Repertory – Alex discovers it wasn’t earned on her own merit, but through a phone call from steel mill boss-turned-boyfriend and arts appreciator Nick (Michael Nouri), who uses his connections to pull a few strings. So clouded by anger in this revelation, Alex blindly clambers out of a braking car under a busy highway tunnel. “I got you the audition, the rest is up to you,” Nick bellows to her. “The whole thing has to be up to me,” insists Alex.
Flashdance, a quintessentially ‘80s romp about a dancer’s dreams to go professional, turns 40 this year. While it fits into the sub-genre of flashy dance movies from the decade famous for dramatic training sequences, faced-paced montages and climactic performances, Alex’s outburst captures exactly what made Flashdance an outlier – the determination for agency in the pursuit of her dreams, including the terms, and compromises, on which it was acceptable to achieve them.
In many commercially popular dance films from this era, female characters often served a secondary purpose prioritised ahead of their own desires. In Breakin’, for example, jazz dancer Kelly (Lucinda Dickey) isn’t taken seriously as a performer in her own right until she pairs up with two male street dancers to be deployed as their secret weapon. In Dirty Dancing, Baby (Jennifer Grey) is initially a fill-in to help Johnny (Patrick Swayze), before he proclaims to an audience that Baby “taught me about the kind of person I wanna be”. In Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and Footloose, dance is portrayed as an act of defiance against controlling fathers. Flashdance, in contrast, refrains from pivoting to reductive motives to justify Alex’s dance dreams. Dance isn't a form of rebellion or validation. Performing is simply Alex’s raison d'être.
From the outset, 18-year-old Alex is portrayed as a small but mighty force in the Pennsylvania ‘Steel City’ that towers above her. Dressed in wide-cut trousers, boots and an oversized army jacket, she’s first a bulky silhouette in the hazy morning fog, cycling through a brutal cityscape of imposing, industrial buildings. The location gave a rougher edge to the film, but also positions Alex as capable of navigating both the male dominated steel mill and the seedy nighttime industry of her moonlight gig dancing at Mawby's bar.
Similar antithetical devices continue throughout the film. Alex wears red heels paired with an oversized, off-the-shoulder sweater – made famous from both the film poster and the scene in which she nonchalantly removes her bra underneath during a conversation with Nick; she flicks through French Vogue on the steelyard floor and opts for a backless tuxedo and bow tie on a dinner date; she pirouettes in front of the TV with a beer in hand. These contradictions not only distance Alex from the high-art ballet world where she envisions herself, but they challenge the traditional aesthetic requirements of femininity, and class, that barred entry to a binary dance industry – barriers which still exist today. This is especially evident when her dirty work boots are shot amongst a line of dance shoes in the repertory admissions office. But despite her insecurities, she’s ultimately unwilling to compromise her identity on the path to her dreams.
Alex also insists on maintaining her independence. She initially tells Nick ‘no’ at every turn – to help carry her equipment, to dating the boss (refusing a few too many times to make this courtship charming). It’s the same prideful stubbornness admired in her male film counterparts from the same era. In Staying Alive, the swaggering Tony Manero (John Travolta) – also working class and an amateur – is intent on achieving success without help. “You didn’t put in a good word for me?” he asks his girlfriend and professional dancer Jackie when he lands a Broadway role, “I got this job all on my own?”
Alex’s desire for agency can also be felt in the burning passion of her performances. The iconic scene at Mawby’s bar where she arches across a chair and unleashes a torrent of water across her chest is rough, raw and near manic, though performed with total control. As critic Kathryn Kalinak wrote in a 1984 essay for the journal Jump Cut, the flashdancers “not only control their bodies physically, but they also exert a force over the cinematic space which affects their representation,” meaning Alex’s explosive movements – which aren’t captured in the typical low angle shot, seen through the male gaze – could not be confined within camera angles.
In contrast to the common narrative trope in which a damsel in sex work or an adjacent industry needs “saving”, performing at a nightime bar is portrayed as empowering for Alex, not degrading. This is particularly potent in a time that preceded the labour rights protections that strippers and exotic dancers have spent recent years fighting for. Mindful creative decisions were going on behind the scenes, too, with Beals recently telling The Hollywood Reporter that she objected to a nude scene early on.
When Alex eventually concedes to Nick’s romantic proposals, however, his status has now afforded her a shot with her dream dance company. With her big break within reach, she must ask whether to resist or participate in the patriarchal power structures and class barriers that have held her back this far. While modern “choice feminism” advocates might imply that immediately taking the opportunity would be not only justified, but a feminist act, Alex recognises she’s treading dangerously close to an unbalanced power dynamic in which romantic favours in the industry are rewarded with career progression, just as we see Kelly in ‘Breakin’’ forced to physically fight off the sexual advances of her dance instructor moments after praising her potential. The prevalence of such abuse and manipulation in arts and entertainment became all too apparent in a post-#MeToo world.
Instead, Alex visits her female mentor, retired ballet dancer Hanna Long, who is her primary source of motivation. After discovering Nick’s clandestine favour, Alex is adamant she doesn’t want her in to the industry that way, and she seeks out counsel in Hanna, only to find out that she unexpectedly died. Overcome with a sense of responsibility to fulfil the dreams that her biggest supporter died with – and having witnessed the alternative in the parallel ambitions of figure skating hopeful friend Jeanie, who turns to the strip club across the street when her dreams crumble – Alex silently concludes that taking the audition is indeed a chance to reclaim the opportunity on her own terms.
By the time we arrive at Flashdance’s iconic final audition scene, Alex’s future is once again in her own hands. Her fumble on the first attempt, which prompts her to request a do-over, is a reminder that her fate is not yet secured. When she hits her stride on the second attempt, Alex deploys that same uninhibited, impassioned mania from her previous performances. Auditioning for an old school repertory in a black leotard and woolly leg warmers, she somersaults and breakdances, continuing to break out of the mould of what’s expected of her. She charges out into the bright, sunny streets of Pittsburgh, confident that, in that moment, she was the driving force that made her dreams come true. More importantly, she chooses to live by the boundless mantra of the film’s theme song, Irene Cara’s ‘What A Feeling’, who sings: “Take your passion, and make it happen.” There’s no other choice.
Hollie Geraghty (@hollie_geraghty) is a freelance culture journalist and copywriter with words in Rolling Stone UK, NME, The Guardian, Dance Magazine and more. When she’s not rewatching ‘80s dance flicks she can be found catching up on the classics.