Meet Leonard Bernstein and learn the moves to his famous ‘mambo’ from West Side Story. Can you guess which country the mambo dance comes from?

Who was Leonard Bernstein?

Leonard – or ‘Lenny’ – Bernstein was born in 1918 and was one of the first American conductors to receive worldwide fame. He was also a pianist and a composer.

He loved teaching and starred in a television show in the 1960s called Young People’s Concerts. In this YouTube video by the Leonard Bernstein Office, Bernstein teaches young audiences about the mixolydian mode. That sounds complicated, right? But in fact, it’s not as bad as you think…

In music, a mode is a type of scale (as in ‘doh re mi fa so la ti do’). When one note or several notes are altered in the musical scale, you can call it a mode.

  • Can you spot the peculiar note in the mixolydian mode and clap along to Bernstein playing it on the piano?

As you can see from the previous the video, Leonard Bernstein was a fan of both classical and pop music and wasn’t afraid to sing a song by the Beatles in the middle of a Symphony Orchestra concert! He composed the musical West Side Story which was performed for the first time on Broadway in 1956. A first movie version was released 50 years ago, and a new version directed by Steven Spielberg will be coming out soon! You can watch the trailer here.

About West Side Story

In this story, there are two gangs fighting on the streets of New York. Tony is a Jet, a gang of American-born youths and Maria’s brother Bernardo is the leader of the Sharks, a gang of Puerto Rican migrants. The Jets meet the Sharks at a dance and challenge them to in a massive fight and here Tony and Maria meet and fall instantly in love. Tony tries to stop the ‘rumble’ for Maria’s sake, but Bernardo stabs one of the Jets. Tony reacts by killing Bernardo. Still in love, Maria agrees to meet Tony that night and run away with him, but Tony receives word that Maria is dead. Grief-stricken, Tony goes out seeking the Sharks who are hunting him. He discovers that Maria is alive, but a Shark shoots him. Tony dies in Maria’s arms.

  • Do you know your Shakespeare? Does this remind you of one of his famous stories where a boy and a girl from rival families fall in love?

In the famous dance scene members of both gangs dance the Mambo as a kind of battle in dance. This is in fact when Maria meets Tony! Have a look at this extract from the original movie. The Mambo starts with the percussion playing a very energetic rhythm…

The Mambo is a style of Cuban dance music which came about in the 1930s. In the 1940s and 1950s, it became very popular in Latin America, but also in New York.

Have a go at dancing the mambo

Now, it’s your turn to dance! Here is a link to a tutorial video for you to practice your mambo moves at home.

How are you getting on? Are you feeling confident now? Ready to go faster? Why not try to dance to this version of the ‘mambo’ from West Side Story performed by Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms in 2007?

We would love to see your moves! If you want, you can share videos with us on Twitter using #ONLittleSchool.

Catch up West Side Story Symphonic Dances

If you and your family fancy hearing Leonard Bernstein’s music live, Opera North and Phoenix Dance Theatre are presenting a Bernstein Double Bill of Trouble in Tahiti and West Side Story Symphonic Dances this Autumn.

Trouble in Tahiti is a one-act opera/musical, bringing together the sounds of jazz and musical theatre to tell the story of one day in the life of a married couple, Sam and Dinah.

The Symphonic Dances are extracted from the show West Side Story and packed with mambos, waltzes and cha-chas. Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Dane Hurst creates an entirely new dance work which responds to these rhythms.

Find out more

Aaron Chaplin in rehearsals for West Side Story Symphonic Dances © Camilla Greenwell


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