"DON'T YOU feel like doing something that's all you?" Tony Manero asks his Broadway dancer girlfriend toward the beginning of "Staying Alive."

Everything Tony does is all him. During the course of the movie, he catapults himself out of the chorus line and into a starring role, gyrating and pulsating all the way. Audiences have not been unmoved: "Staying Alive," despite a critical drubbing, outgrossed "Return of the Jedi" in last weekend's box-office sweepstakes.

Tony has company. Consider his female counterpart, the hard-driven Alexandra of "Flashdance," whom we first see perform in a New Wave bar, but who winds up, thanks to a similar brand of movement, in the world of legitimate ballet.

"Flashdance" has been around long enough to prove that its appeal is not ephemeral: short on stars and good reviews, it has grossed $62 million for Paramount in a little over three months, and is still in Variety's Top 10.

This summer, dancing, and dancers, have become the metaphor for the American Dream.

You Can Make It If You Try. This message, sent forth via popular music and movement, reaches us not only through movies but through our radios, televisions, and fitness gurus. Yet there's more to this than Horatio Alger; along with the words and rhythms comes an array of images that send a definite charge to the libido:

* The Incredible Hunk, John Travolta, wears little more than a designer loincloth and sweatband as he struts his stuff in "Staying Alive";

* Alex, the central character of "Flashdance", contorts her scantily-clad body in any number of suggestive positions and shakes her hips so frenetically that they take on the look of some high-tech machine;

* Michael Jackson, the crown prince of electric elegance, exudes an androgynous sexuality as he locomotes magically backward on the "Motown 25" special, or leads two street gangs through a slinky routine in the MTV version of his hit song "Beat It."

* The perfectly toned women of the "20 Minute Workout" on daytime TV wear sexy leotards and are shot from above, below and other kinky angles.

The influences these images exert on our culture are substantial. Witness the torn, off-the shoulder sweatshirt craze (thanks in part to Alex's fashion preferences). Watch the recorded soundtracks flying out of the record racks. Take note of this excerpt of a Letter to the Editor in The Village Voice: "I saw and thoroughly enjoyed "Flashdance" . . . The picture was funny, sad, sexy, and proud. The dialogue was fine throughout. Some unrealistic aspects? Show me a movie without a myth. Dreams? Where would we be without them?"

FAME! I wanna live forever! I wanna learn how to fly!

For all of the working-class characters in movies such as "Flashdance," "Saturday Night Fever," "Staying Alive" and "Fame," movement ability is a priceless commodity, a statement of self, a transforming agent. "Flashdance's" Alex, a welder by day and "exotic" performer by night, regards dancing as a mystical act in which she can blissfully lose herself, and, finally, as a way out of the daily factory grind. Leroy, the young black dancer in "Fame," channels his anger and jive into a disciplined art form, and secures himself a niche at the High School of Performing Arts as well as an escape from the ghetto. Tony, in his earlier incarnation as Disco King of Bay Ridge, finds that dancing brings him money, romance, respect and a ticket out of Brooklyn. Once in Manhattan, he's got to be Numero Uno, but on his own quirky, unrealistic terms. Dancing is his lifeline, his ladder up, his method of personal communication.

The dance world always has been one of hierarchies, but never have the boundaries been drawn as sharply, or torn down as blithely, as in these films. For Alex, ballet is the ultimate dream, the domain of the elite. Photographs of misty pas de deux cover the walls of her Pittsburgh loft; she weeps at the sight of a toe shoe or arabesque. She yearns to audition for the city repertory company, but barely can summon up the courage to ask for an application (little wonder: Director Adrian Lyne shoots the company building from an imposingly low camera angle, and tracks down the hall past clusters of chicly-coiffed-and-legwarmered ballet types). Yet her own dancing, rooted in popular music and movement styles, has absolutely no relation to ballet. In fact, her most vibrant source of inspiration turns out to be "breaking," a devilish concoction of acrobatics, head spins and mesmerizing footwork performed almost exclusively by young male street crews.

So what if she's 18 and ballet training begins when you're 8? Compromise is taboo in this fantasy world of win and lose. Alex wows the uptight panel of judges with her "flashdance" and earns her bouquet of red roses and gossamer wings. Leroy sidles into the High School of Performing Arts auditions with knives and a gigantic radio in tow, upstages his partner and gains admittance without even applying. As for Tony, he maneuvers his way out of the chorus line and into a leading role, gets back at his bitchy partner onstage by hurling her into the wings, then launches into an improvised solo that brings down the house. "The show is the thing, not you!" bellows the director, but Manero's not interested. This stage is his new turf, quite a few steps up from the 2001 Club in Brooklyn.

By far the most arresting examples of "dreamdancing" are Michael Jackson's video interpretations of his hit songs "Beat It" and "Billie Jean." "Beat It," a mini-"West Side Story" of gang warfare, features Jackson as The Social Reformer, using his slippery, multidirectional dancing as a unifying force between black and white streetfighters. Long fingers curling and snapping, knees shooting up like arrows, this boy-man leads a huge pack of toughs through a routine of supreme cool. "Billie Jean" presents Jackson in a different sort of fantasy role, that of The Great Transformer. Strutting and twirling his natty way through a set reeking of'40s film noir, he emanates a neon white beam that turns a bum into a gentleman and a cat into a tiger, and also allows him to disappear at will. Part mystery, part romance, this brief videotape has us equating Jackson's elusive, freeze-framed, split-screened movement with magic.

Dreams-come-true have always been a basic ingredient in American films. They figure prominently in cinema of the '30s--particularly in such whimsical Frank Capra films as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town"--and serve as the foundation for Sylvester Stallone's ongoing series of "Rocky" epics. What makes this current crop of blockbusters different? Whereas Mr. Smith and Rocky were tenacious, hard-working fellows, Alex, Tony, Leroy and Jackson (inhabiting his various personae) let loose and let the powers-that-be come to them. Oozing with street smarts, fashion know-how, freedom, health, sexuality and chutzpah, they are the easiest--and most unrealistic--of role models to seize upon.

Take your passion And make it happen!

Making It. The term takes on a double-edged meaning here. These film characters are hellbent on making it as dancers, but their professional strivings are intimately connected to another, even more physical sort of Making It: namely, sex.

In the hands of ultraslick directors such as Stallone and Lyne, there's virtually no difference between a dance and a come-on. Their notion of choreography has as much to do with pulsating rock music, blinding lights, rapid-fire editing, dry ice and revealing costumes as it has to do with the repetitious pelvis-and-shoulder twitching that passes for dancing in their films. Such calculated employment of bodies and effects adds an extra layer of fantasy onto this already fantasy-laden film genre. While we dream and yearn along with these young hopefuls, we can't help indulging in another sort of dreaming: that of the voyeur awash in a sea of biceps and Spandex.

"I like sex, and I feel sexual," John Travolta is quoted as saying in a recent interview, "and if that's what's coming across, then I don't want to deny people's perception. I think it's a compliment if people see me that way, and I don't find it limiting. It makes more things possible."

Travolta's much-touted transformation--under the guidance of Stallone--from matinee idol to muscular, leotarded stud is just one acute example of the national obsession with aerobics, health clubs and anything that will help us look firm, young and desirable. Turn on your TV and models in bikinis extol the virtues of Tab and Diet Pepsi; Victoria Principal works out at the Holiday Spa; characters on a soap opera share their joys and sorrows at an aerobic dancing class. Walk into a bookstore, and the sight of Jane Fonda's 40-plus figure on the cover of her best-selling "Workout Book" may lead you to personal nirvana.

Everywhere you turn these days, somebody's telling you that a "good bod" is essential. In movies like "Flashdance" and "Staying Alive," the fusion of great bods and erotic movement send forth an even stronger message: Dancing Can Be a Sexual Stimulant. Delivered via camera angles, cutting, dialogue, plot development and incessant musical throbbing, this message is hardly subliminal. Characters capitalize on the sexual nature of their dancing, but so too are they treated as sex objects--by other characters, by the camera, and by ogling movie-goers. Actor Steve Inwood, who plays a theatrical director in "Staying Alive," put it succinctly: "If you get out of this movie and don't want to make love, you've got problems."

The verb "to want" takes on two meanings when applied to these dancers. Leroy's steamy, thrusting number leaves the female faculty members impressed and also aroused. During the course of Alex's audition for the Pittsburgh ballet company, a panel of stuffy jurors ends up energized by her performance. Affairs are sparked for similar reasons: Tony Manero swoons under the spell of an Englishwoman's high kicking; Alex's boss at the factory takes one look at her "flashdance" and he's a goner.

The makers of "Staying Alive," and especially "Flashdance," rarely allow their protagonists to complete a dance phrase; they photograph their subjects in parts, honing in on crotches, buttocks, pectorals, thighs. "Guys like you aren't relationships, you're exercise," scoffs a woman in "Staying Alive" after Tony turns down her offer of a late-night romp. Audiences may roar with laughter (and women may revel in this bit of role reversal), but the implications are obvious: Tony is a sex machine. As for "Flashdance's" portrayal of women, take note of this juxtaposition of shots: erotic dance solo, followed by piece of hamburger frying on a grill.

Certainly the most bizarre intermingling of dance and sex crops up during a scene in "Flashdance," one in which Alex's lover asks her to repeat a step she's just executed. "I can't," she sighs, explaining that she hasn't the vaguest notion of what she's just done. And then she offers her definition of the dance experience: "Your body just starts to move. Something inside of you clicks, you take off, and you're gone . . . " Any dancer will tell you that the art is a conscious, disciplined act; what Alex describes sounds suspiciously like an orgasm.

Dance and sex and dreams and success. In today's movies, they're all of a piece. Take them as a package--or leave them.