I'VE BEEN STRUCK by the high recommendations friends in the labor community gave the movie "Flashdance," at the same time that critics were giving the film terrible reviews and the public was buying over $18 million worth of tickets to it.

"Flashdance" is the story of Alexandra (Alex), an 18-year-old female welder who also appears nightly as an interpretive dancer in a Pittsburgh bar. Adding to these seemingly incompatible talents, Alex dreams of studying at the prestigious Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

Apparently rejecting the notion that a female welder could possibly aspire to master a classical art, the critics dismiss the story as sheer fantasy. I suspect that if Alex had been a legal secretary or a receptionist, her aspirations would have seemed more real. Yet the story in "Flashdance" is by no means pure hokum.

What really makes the movie different from conventional Hollywood fare is that the heroine is an ethnic, Catholic, blue-collar-neighborhood local who also happens to be a woman. Because she is a woman, and because she is a blue-collar worker, her story could prove inspirational to many throughout Middle America.

Several years ago, moviegoers were thrilled by a different neighborhood hero when Rocky Balboa, a 10th-rate prize fighter in an equally impossible dream, challenged a heavyweight champion. We watched as he slowly jogged in the pre-dawn darkness of his working-class surroundings. To a background of beating drums and blaring trumpets, our pulse quickened and adrenalin flowed as his strength and stamina increased. We cheered as a jubilant Rocky leaped into the sunlit morning, fists clenched and arms raised in triumph, symbolically shouting to the city below, "I'm ready!"

Rocky's ability to go the limit was a salute to the human spirit, but what made him special to so many of us was that he came from our ranks. His was a trial we could understand. We were honored by his victory.

In "Flashdance," our heroine enters a different contest. Summoning all of her courage, she mounts the stairs of the stately Carnegie edifice seeking admission to the ballet school. Her fatigue jacket and grease- stained work boots stand in striking contrast to the other applicants' leotards and delicate slippers. Nervously staring at the floor and ceiling, she unsuccessfully attempts to avoid their snickering.

Then our self-taught dancer hears a robot-like receptionist repeat, "List all formal dance education. Be sure to include how many years you spent at each institution." The class implications of this scene are inescapable and prove too much for her to endure. She bursts from the room and runs in defeat past the dancers that line the marbled halls. The rest of the story revolves around her finding the courage to audition.

Alex's fear of failure is set against other characters in the story who do fail, such as the short-order cook whose journey to Hollywood to be a comedian ends with an offer to be a waiter. But even more ominous is the failure of the industrial society that frames the story. Except for Alex and her lover, the scenes of steel mills, freight yards and warehouses are empty. The idled freight cars, pyramids of rusting steel and abandoned buildings are all that remains of a once-powerful industrial giant.

Yet one cannot miss the work ethic that drives our female welder. The molten steel, belching steam and flashing acetylene torches that fill her day are followed by evenings of feverish practice, strenuous workouts and dancing in a nightclub. Finally, her courage renewed with the help of her lover, she is granted an audition. And as with Rocky, we are definitely in an arena.

In place of a ferocious opponent who could deliver physical punishment, we have a more awesome deserted dance floor and a long table of elite, stone-faced judges. Rejection here says, "Stay in your place where you belong." In an explosive ending, Alex performs her own interpretive dance without apology. Her style, ability and spirit visibly move the panel and set the theater audience wild with excitement. Again, hers is a contest we fully understand. We identify with her artistic as well as social struggle. We share her victory.

The social impact of America's economic ills has not escaped us. The nightly news presents a relentless bombardment of mortgage foreclosures, repossessed campers, cars and farms. There is also the recognition that the rescue envisioned by the elusive high-tech revolution will require a trained and credentialed work force that will all but disqualify a generation of blue-collar workers.

Yet, it is precisely this economic and social setting that makes the story of our female welder so inspirational. Her personal struggle is superimposed over the backdrop of an industrial society in painful transition. But she is driven even harder. Her courage, perseverance and success are the reasons people come away from this movie so reinvigorated.

The critics advise us to save our money, panning "Flashdance" with lines like "paltry plot . . . (Alexandra) bears not the slightest resemblance to a convincing human being." Perhaps the critics dislike the film because, unlike a "Ghandi," the message of "Flashdance" lies beyond their sociology. Perhaps it is audible only to those who once shared in the American dream and realize that the road will be long and hard before they do again.

The message in this film is one Americans need to hear. If, as some would argue, Middle America is on the ropes or even the canvas, there is an equally pervasive feeling that help will not be coming from either our political leaders or once-dominant giant corporations. After decades of looking outside ourselves for saviors, Americans now realize that to restore our prosperity we will have to rely on ourselves. It is going to be the Rockys and the Alexandras, people who have the courage to accept that challenge, who, through local acts of heroism, say to the rest of us, "Come on; let's go get 'em!"