Alex Owens is a female dynamo: steel worker by day, exotic dancer by night. Her dream is to get into a real dance company, though, and with encouragement from her boss/boyfriend, she may get her chance. The city of Pittsburgh co-stars. What a feeling!
In Pittsburgh, hard working, outwardly strong willed and independently minded eighteen year old Alex Owens is a welder at a steel mill by day, and a nightclub dancer by night, most specifically at a working class neighborhood bar called Mawby's where she is friends with boyfriend/girlfriend Richie Plasic, the bar's short order cook and an aspiring stand-up comic, and Jeanie Szabo, one of the waitresses and a competitive figure skater who is easy prey for anyone willing to play to her many insecurities. As a dancer, Alex is self-taught, picking up whatever she can by any means to make it her own. She dances solely for how it connects her to the music, and not for what anyone watching might think. Partly due to the influence by her elderly ex-ballerina friend Hanna Long, Alex, in an effort to make something out of her life doing something that she loves, does aspire to formal dance training at the Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance and Repertory, she having saved her welding money to be able to attend. She is however intimidated by the pretension and the qualifications of all the other dancers there to go through with the application process. While dancing at Mawby's, she attracts the attention of one of the customers, Nick Hurley, the divorced owner of the steel mill who doesn't know she works for him until it is pointed out to him by a colleague. Nick is of that working class background, but is self-made through his business. Despite her apprehension of dating the boss, they embark on a relationship. The question becomes whether Alex will be able to bridge the many new gaps in her life to achieve what she wants, with Nick, they who are at different stages and places in their lives, and with the Conservatory and their qualification criteria, structure and formality.
A Pittsburgh woman with two jobs as a welder and an exotic dancer wants to get into ballet school.
- The film opens with "Flashdance... What a Feeling," which is a recurring theme throughout the entire film. During the opening credits 18-year-old Alexandra 'Alex' Owens (Jennifer Beals) rides her bicycle through Pittsburgh on her way to work as a welder at one of the city's steel mills.
After work, Alex moonlights as a dancer at Mawby's Bar, which features dancers in a go-go atmosphere. Nick Hurley, one of the steel mill bosses, enters the bar as Alex performs a dance to "He's a Dream." Nick is intrigued by Alex. His friend tells him that she works for him at the mill.
Richie, the bar's cook, wants to be go to Los Angeles to become a standup comedian. He tries out some of his material on Jeanie, one of the waitresses.
At work the next day, Nick introduces himself to Alex, tells her he saw her dance and asks why a dancer would be working as a welder. She responds, "a girl's got to make a living." Their first meeting ends when Nick is called away to another area of the mill.
Alex lives by herself in a converted warehouse loft with her pit bull, named Grunt. When she gets home from work, she channel surfs for something worth watching on TV. She stops on some ballet dancers performing to "Adagio for Strings" and attempts to copy their moves. It is Alex's dream to study at a local, prestigious school of dance, the Pittsburgh Dance and Repertory Company.
She changes into exercise clothes, tapes her bare feet and feverously exercises to "Maniac." The song's lyrics reflect her passion to become a serious dancer. After her strenuous workout, she's exhausted.
The next day Alex bikes to the Repertory building to obtain an application, but is discouraged when she finds several girls waiting for applications. The lady in the admissions office instructs them to list all their previous years of training. Alex leaves without an application and bikes to work.
When Alex and Nick share an elevator ride at work, he asks her to lunch or dinner, but she tells him she doesn't have dinner with the boss.
Later Alex visits Hanna Long, a retired professional dancer, who has become her mentor. Hanna encourages Alex to pursue her dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer, but Alex makes excuses for not auditioning for the Rep.
After she leaves Hanna's, Alex bikes to a nearby church where she confesses to the priest that she thinks a lot about sex and she told a lie. Hanna was badgering Alex to get the application for the Rep, but she didn't want to make her friend unhappy by telling her that she didn't have the courage to go through with it.
In the next scene Johnny C., who runs the Zanzibar strip club, and his not-too-bright bodyguard, Cecil, try to entice customers into his club.
At a self service laundry, Alex notices that Jeanie is washing Richie's underwear, confirming that these two are a serious couple. Jeanie's father is giving her a hard time because Richie hasn't proposed. Jeanie has dreams of becoming a professional ice skater.
Next, Alex and several of the dancers from Mawby's exercise with weights and use workout machines to "I Love Rock 'n' Roll."
As Jeanie and Alex walk down the street, a group of African-American guys breakdance and moonwalk to music played on their jambox. Quite a crowd gathers to watch their demonstration.
As the girls continue their walk, a policeman directs traffic. When Alex helps the traffic cop with his duties, it turns into a traffic signal dance, as an excerpt from Georges Bizet's "Carmen Suite No. 2: Garde montant" is heard.
At dinner at Jeanie's parents house, Alex defends her friend's dream of becoming a professional ice skater even though her parents don't seem to have much confidence in their daughter's abilities. After dinner the two girls go to the ice rink where Jeanie showcases some of her skating skills.
In the following scene Richie is backstage practicing some of his jokes waiting to go on while one of the dancers finishes her routine on stage. Alex and a couple of the other dancers are in the audience rooting for him. Jeanie stops her waitressing to listen. At first, Richie's jokes bomb. Only after he threatens to put cockroaches in the hamburgers does the audience warm up to his humor. At the end of his routine, he introduces Tina Tech, who dances to "Manhunt."
Johnny C. visits Mawby's to recruit some of the dancers to work at the Zanzibar. When he stops Alex and squeezes her buttocks, she pours beer on his crotch. Later after work as Richie and Alex are walking through a parking lot, Johnny and Cecil stop them. After Cecil socks Richie in the nose, Nick breaks up a potentially violent payback. Afterwards, Alex thanks Nick for his help and bikes home. Nick follows her in his Porsche and asks her to dinner again. Once again she reiterates that it isnt a good idea to go out with her boss, so he kiddingly fires her and sets a date for the next evening.
On their date, Alex and Nick first attend Jeanie's ice skating competition. Jeanie's parents and Richie are also there to watch her skate to "Gloria." Unfortunately, Jeanie falls a couple of times. Afterwards, Alex tries to cheer Jeanie up, but she is discouraged that she has spent so much time and practice towards something that now seems like a waste. Her father, who hasn't been very supportive of his daughter's dream, reassures her of his love.
After the ice skating competition Nick and Alex decide to have pizza for dinner. They pick it up and take it back to her warehouse apartment. She immediately changes into a much more comfortable sloppy sweatshirt. Alex tells Nick about the time her father took her family to the symphony. At first, she was bored, but her father suggested that if she closed her eyes she could see the music. Before the evening is over, Nick and Alex end up in bed.
The next day the two lovers walk on the railroad tracks as "Lady, Lady, Lady" is heard. They go inside an old building where Nick sees Alex spin like a ballet dancer. When he asks her to do it again, she says she was just fooling around. She explains that she has never studied dance; she's read books on ballet and watches ballet, but has never taken classes. Then she explains how she does what she does at Mawby's. She just feels the music, something clicks inside and she becomes somebody else. And she loves to get up there and disappear into the music.
In the following scene, Alex dances an avant garde routine in white face makeup to "Imagination." The number has a lot to do with fantasies becoming reality. Nobody seems to understand Alex's dance except for one of the other dancers in the club, Heels. During the song Johnny C. asks Jeanie why she doesn't dance. She tells him she's been practicing. After he makes a suggestive remark about doing the horizontal mambo, he gives her a big tip.
Alex attends a ballet performance of Claude Debussys "Prélude à lAprès-midi dun Faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn)" at the Repertory with Hanna. When the ballet is over, Alex happens to see Nick with another woman. She is furious! Still in her concert dress, she rides her bike to his house, throws a rock through one of his windows, calls him a son of a bitch and retreats quickly.
Back at the warehouse, her radiator has sprung a leak. While she is on her knees mopping up the water in her concert dress, Richie comes by to tell her goodbye; he's headed for L.A. When she asks about Jeanie, he admits he loves her, but he says he can't continue to cook hamburgers at Mawby's and pretend to be a comedian.
The next day at the mill, Nick tries to pay for Alex's lunch at the lunch truck, but she is still very mad. She demands to know who the blond was that was with him the previous evening. He explains that it was his ex-wife. Since they have friends on the Arts Council, he takes her to the benefit once a year. Now Alex feels guilty that she broke his window. When they reconcile, the workers who are sitting around eating their lunch applaud.
That evening Nick and Alex have dinner at a fancy restaurant. Alex, who is dressed in a tuxedo coat, eats her lobster with her fingers. During the meal, just as Alex puts her foot on Nick's crotch, his ex-wife, Katie, stops by their table. After a few catty remarks from Katie that are aimed at Alex, Alex takes her tux coat off to reveal she is only wearing a shirt bib and cuffs. Then she proudly announces that on her first date with Nick: "I fucked his brains out!"
Later that evening, Nick and Alex talk about his marriage to Katie; she was high class, educated, from a good family and it made him feel like he had made it. But one day he realized that wasn't what he really wanted. So he started over and went after what he really wanted to do. Alex asks, "How did you do it?" Nick answers, "I took a deep breath and jumped."
Their conversation gave Alex the renewed desire to pursue her dream, so the next day she goes to the Rep for an application. There she is reminded that auditions to the school are by invitation only. Nick sees her leave the building, so he goes inside and finds out about her getting an application. He immediately telephones a friend on the Arts Council asking for a favor.
At Mawby's Halloween Party, the owner and his guests are dancing to "Romeo." During the party, Richie returns from L.A. Jeanie is very cool towards Richie and leaves the party with Johnny C.
When Alex gets a letter from the Repertory, she's afraid to open it. Finally she musters enough courage and is ecstatic when she discovers she's been invited to audition. She runs to find Nick to break the news, who suggests they celebrate at dinner that evening.
Later in the day, she bikes to Hanna's to tell her the good news. Hanna congratulates and encourages her. On an after dinner drive later that evening, Nick commits a faux pas: he says he called the restaurant the previous night and told them this was a special occasion. Alex immediately realizes that he knew she was going to be invited to audition before she received the letter. She makes him stop the car in the middle of a tunnel, gets out and walks away. He tries to make her understand that he just made a phone call to a friend. She, however, yells that she doesn't want his help.
Afterward Alex needs to talk to a friend, so she calls Mawby's to talk to Jeanie. They inform her that Jeanie now works at the Zanzibar. Alex immediately heads for the nude club. Before she arrives, we see several of the nude or semi-nude girls performing to "Seduce Me Tonight." Once Alex enters the club, she spots Jeanie (clad in only high-heeled shoes and a G-string) dancing, and Alex literally drags her off the stage. When Johnny C. tries to stop her, Alex pushes him out of the way. Outside in the rain, Jeanie asks Alex why she came after her. Alex responds, "Because you're my friend."
Later that evening, when Alex returns to her warehouse apartment, Nick and Grunt are waiting outside in the rain. When Alex didn't show up at work that day, Nick came to investigate. He accuses her of being scared to audition for the Rep and of using him as an excuse. Just before he leaves he says, "When you give up your dream, you die."
The next day Alex bikes to Hanna's, but sadly discovers that her mentor had died the previous day. As Alex mourns the loss of her friend and mentor, she picks up a pair of Hanna's ballet slippers to take as a memento. During this and the following scene, "I'll Be There Where the Heart Is" is heard. Back at her apartment Alex continues to mourn; the song continues as she sits alone on the floor of her bathroom and wanders aimlessly around her warehouse apartment.
Alex returns to Mawby's to pick up her stuff, then goes to confession. She tells the priest "I want it so much." The next scene is Alex's audition for the dance school before five stuffy judges. She puts on a recording of "Flashdance... What a Feeling," starts her dance, stops and starts again. During the slow beginning of the song, the judges seem completely unimpressed and maybe even bored, but when the tempo picks up the stodgy judges begin to loosen up. The lyrics are very germane to the plot. They sing about a dream that is hidden because of fear and about crying in a world made of steel. This dancer hears the music, closes her eyes and allows it to invade her body (like her father had suggested when he took her to the symphony). Then she is the music, she is the rhythm, and she dances as if her life depended on it.
The song continues as Alex exits the building with a huge smile on her face. Waiting for her are Nick and Grunt. After Alex hugs Nick, he presents her with a bouquet of roses (like most ballerinas receive after a brilliant performance). When she takes out one rose to give to Nick, the scene freezes to end the film (we are left to speculate whether Alex was accepted into the dance school, but we are confident that she was). As the closing credits begin, "Flashdance... What a Feeling" continues, followed by "Manhunt," "Imagination," and "Maniac."