We see Maria, Bernardo's sister, in a dress shop with Anita, Bernardo's girlfriend. Anita is making Maria a dress and refuses to make the neckline lower for Maria. Maria begs Anita to take an inch off, but Anita refuses, which upsets Maria. Maria complains that she has only been in America for a month and has yet to experience any excitement. Anita reminds Maria that she is in America to marry Chino, but Maria says she doesn't feel anything when she looks at Chino.
"What happens when you look at Bernardo?" Maria asks Anita. "It's when I don't look that it happens," Anita says. Maria wants to dye her dress red, complaining that white is for babies, but when she puts it on, she changes her tune, realizing that it's beautiful. Bernardo and Chino come in to take Anita and Maria to the dance. Bernardo tells Chino to keep an eye on Maria at the dance. Maria spins and the scene shifts to the dance at the gym.
We see the Jets and their girlfriends dancing jerkily to the music. Maria and Chino enter the dance, where Bernardo introduces Maria to his friends. As the Jets register that the Sharks are coming into the gym, they get silent and begin walking towards one another. As they approach, an adult coordinator steps in between them and organizes a "get together dance," in which two circles, boys on the outside and girls on the inside, process in a line. When the whistle sounds, each person must dance with whoever is opposite them.
The kids are reluctant to try, but Riff eventually gets in the middle to form a circle and motions for his girlfriend to join him. Then Bernardo and Anita join the center of the room. Slowly some others join them and they begin to march in a circle. When a Jet girl ends up with Bernardo, and Anita ends up with Riff, they do not obey the rules and instead begin dancing with their own kind.
The Sharks and the Jets begin competing mambos, as Tony enters the gym. As the dance-off builds, Tony and Maria spot each other across the dance floor, entranced. They stare at one another, before wandering through the raucous dancing towards one another. They dance to a sweet melody, circling one another. "You're not thinking I'm someone else?" Tony asks, to which Maria replies, "I know you are not."
They take one another's hands and touch each other's faces. "It's so much to believe. You're not making a joke?" Tony says, and Maria tells him she doesn't know how to joke that way. They stare at one another as the music of the dance creeps back. As Tony kisses Maria, Bernardo pushes him away and tells him to stay away. Bernardo orders Chino to take Maria home, much to her disappointment. As she leaves, Tony catches that her name is Maria. Riff pulls Bernardo aside and tells him he wants to hold a war council. Bernardo agrees to meet at midnight at Doc's candy store.
Tony leaves the dance and sings a song about his love for Maria ("Maria"). The scene shifts to Maria at home, dreaming of Tony, as Bernardo lectures her about what is best. As he and Anita leave, Anita scolds Bernardo for being so paternalistic towards his sister, saying, "Girls here are free to have fun, she is in America now!"
They go up to the roof of the building, where a bunch of Sharks are hanging out. Anita scolds Bernardo about wanting to start a big fight over some dancing. Bernardo complains that white immigrants in America are treated better and get paid more, and Anita and some of the other girls make fun of him for giving the same lecture again and again.
Anita sings a song about how much she likes America in comparison to Puerto Rico ("America"). Bernardo heckles her throughout the song about the fact that Puerto Ricans are treated as second-class citizens, in spite of Anita's insistence that life is better here. The Sharks disperse to go meet the Jets at Doc's. As they walk down the stairs, Bernardo asks Anita to meet him on the roof later, but she doesn't want to, saying that now that she's an American, she shouldn't have to wait. "You want me to be an American, don't you?" Bernardo says, as a way of justifying going to the war council.
Maria prays in her room, and Tony calls to her from the alleyway below. She emerges onto the fire escape and tells him to be quiet. He asks her to come down, but she tells him she cannot and warns him to be quiet so he does not wake up her parents. He climbs up the fire escape, as Maria's father calls her pet name to her, "Maruca." Tony insists that her father will like him, but Maria tells Tony, "No, he is like Bernardo, afraid." They sing a love song to one another ("Tonight"). When Maria's parents call to her again, Tony reluctantly says good night and leaves. Before he leaves, Tony tells Maria that he loves her. Maria tells him to come to her workplace, the dress shop, Madam Lucia's, the next night at 6, and advises him to use the back door.
As Tony goes to leave, Maria calls to him, asking what his name is short for. He tells her it's short for "Anton" and she says, "Te adoro, Anton."
The beginning of the film is filled with masculine and rough young men, who take pride in their hardness and their ability to fight and defend themselves. The beginning of this section of the film introduces us to Maria and Anita, the main female characters, both of whom are very feminine, but in different ways. Maria is an innocent but spirited young woman who is looking for love and excitement. In this way, she mirrors Tony, a hopeful romantic idealist who wants the best and dreams of a life that is better than a rough urban existence.
Anita is much more pragmatic than Maria, less starry-eyed. Played by the iconic actress Rita Moreno, Anita wants to protect Maria and make sure that her expectations are not too high or out of proportion. She is Bernardo's girlfriend and thus intimately acquainted with the gang life, a more mature and practical foil to Maria's dreamy personality.
Dancing, and its expressive capacities, is a major motif in the film. A pivotal scene in the film is the dance at the gym, where Tony and Maria meet. This scene is masterfully framed, choreographed, and shot, almost as if it were inside a dream. Maria relishes the fact that the dance will inaugurate her status as an American woman, and begins to spin in the dress shop, as she spins, she is transported into the center of the gym. Then, when Maria and Tony first meet, the lights and camera focus shifts and it is as if the two lovers are the only people on the dance floor, suspended in light. More than words, dance and music help to propel the story forward and reveal the characters' emotional states.
There is a stark division between the world of young people and the world of adults in West Side Story. Adults are depicted as wanting what is best for the young people, but having no idea how to connect with and understand them. From the racist and bullying Lieutenant Schrank to the dim-witted Officer Krupke to the affable if clueless coordinator at the dance, adults do not understand the ways young people think, and this creates a tension, an even greater sense that the youthful characters are on their own, without any kind of guidance from society at large.
The romance between Tony and Maria serves as a counterpoint to the violence lurking just below the surface between the Sharks and the Jets. Maria and Tony love each other almost instantaneously, and neither of them are concerned that they are members of opposing groups. While the tension between the two gangs is political, tense, and slightly absurd insofar as it involves a group of naive youths masquerading as adults, the love between Tony and Maria is pure and unmarred by the divisiveness in the neighborhood.