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Dancing with the NCAA: Why It's Called "The Big Dance"

Jennifer TaglioneCorrespondent IApril 4, 2009

March Madness. The Big Dance. The Tourney. The Brackets.

You say any those phrases and immediately people know you are talking about the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament. Rarely do you ever hear someone say that whole title. Who can blame them, it’s quite a mouthful! But where did those colloquial expressions come from?

“Tourney” is obvious, since it’s just short for tournmant. “Brackets” are the ranking system of the teams in the tournament. And by now, most people know that the term “March Madness” originated from a high school in Illinois. H.V. Porter coined the term in 1939 in his poem “the Basketball Ides of March.”

“The Madness of March is running/The winged feet fly, the ball sails high/And field goal hunters are gunning.


But what about “The Big Dance?” How did this phrase become so intertwined with the Division I basketball tournament that the NCAA registered a trademark for it? Why do we talk about teams “going dancing” when obviously they are off to play basketball, not perform a Viennese Waltz?

According to the Double Tongue Dictionary, “The Big Dance” is

“an important event, [in particular] the culmination of long preparation or a series of smaller events; (hence) in sports, a tournament or championship game.”

Yeah, but why? I mean, don’t get me wrong, it does take hours and hours of preparation to get ready for a Big Dance. First you have to find an  amazing dress, fabulous shoes, sparkly accessories and a really hot date. And then the day of the dance you spend hours in front of the mirror primping. And if you are like me, it takes a whole day just to fix up the hair.

But what on earth does that have to do with a basketball tournament?

Go ahead, Google it. You won’t find much info on where the term “The Big Dance” originated. Even those who work for the NCAA commission don’t know the origin of the word they trademarked. I’ve never even given much thought–always just used the term. It wasn’t until I saw that someone came to Stiletto Sports from the Google “why big dance name NCAA tournament” that I thought to look it up.

It actually took me hours to find the backstory. Most sites I came across told me the story of March Madness with a quick “yeah, no one knows about the Big dance”.” But I was determined to find out. While I was looking I developed a few ideas of my very own.

My theories:

  1. No sport has as many “Cinderella teams” as the college basketball tourney. And what did Cinderella do? She went to the Big Dance.
  2. To get into the tourney, teams are given a special invitation by the committee–this has been referred to as “punching their tickets” like a dance card.
  3. Teams move across the court like an effortless Quickstep or a highly syncronized group Waltz.
  4. Players jump, leap, twirl, hop, glide and soar like graceful ballerina’s through the air.
  5. Nigel Lythgoe (producer: American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance,  Superstars of Dance) coined the term so he can buy out CBS’s contract and turn March Madess into Fox’s next great Reality Dancing Show

Personally, I really think it could be #5!

The first two are actually great supporting evidence for The Big Dance theory. But it brings up the point of  which came first: Cinderella and the dance cards or the term the Big Dance?

After hours of searching I can finally reveal that the term “the Big Dance” was coined in 1977 by Marquette University Head Coach Al Maguire. Here’s what Kevin Byrne, the former Sports Information Director of Marquette University said.

“The year we won it all [1977], Coach McGuire wore a lucky blue blazer. At the end of the season, a reporter asked him if he’d keep wearing it during the Tournament. Al said, “Absolutely. You gotta wear the blue blazer when you go to the big dance.” ~Answer Guy, ESPN


No, I'm not kidding. This is the Marquette 1977 National Championship team that helped found the term "The Big Dance." Very stylish and sexy!


And the term Big Dance stuck to March Madness, well, like March Madness stuck to the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Over the next 13 years, the phrase became such a part of the NCAA that they began the process of trademarking it for the Division I Championship in 2000.

One quick side note is that there is still mixed feeling about what the Big Dance actually is. Most of the time it refers to the tournament as a whole and encompasses all 64 teams in the bracket. However, as the tournament progesses through the rounds, the term winds up being used to define the Final Four. Some feel the actual Big Dance is the Championship Game, where there are only two teams dancing on the floor.

And there you have it! Shock everyone you know with this trivia because I’ll tell ya, every sports fan I know talks about the Big Dance all the time, but never once questioned why they say it.

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