Easy Ways to Wow Them With Your Military Ball Etiquette

Airmen at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado celebrate. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Airman Manisha Vasquez)
Airmen at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado celebrate. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Airman Manisha Vasquez)

If you've never attended a military ball, you're probably worrying over what to wear, how to act, what traditions to follow and what to expect.

But even if you've lost count of how many balls you've attended, a quick military ball etiquette refresher is always a good thing.

So what is expected of military spouses or dates at the ball? And have you been doing it wrong all along?

First of all, it's important to note: There are no actual rules for military spouses and dates at military balls. The protocol rules are for the service member. Everything for the spouse is a matter of best practice, common sense or, in most cases, simply tradition.

Why so many traditions? Regardless of whether you are attending a Marine Corps or other service's birthday ball, a ball celebrating homecoming or a ball held for any other reason, the rules and guidelines are always meant to honor the military service. Traditions, including the ones followed at a military ball, remind us where we came from and of those who went before us.

Are military balls mandatory?

One of the most commonly asked questions about military balls is “are they mandatory?” The answer is: it depends -- yes, no and maybe -- just like everything else, right?

For service members, the ball may be required, or strongly encouraged. That will depend on the unit and the circumstance. For spouses, however, they are not. Some spouses choose to attend all the events they can, some will go to the annual ball and some will never go. It should have absolutely no impact on your service member if you attend.

If you do go, however, you want to make sure you are prepared, both for the price tag of the event, in what you wear and in what goes on. You can also attend just to put in an appearance. Ydo not have to stay all night. Once the formal portion is over, you can leave.

Who gets invited to a military ball?

A lot of different people are invited to or attend military balls.

Let’s start with the most obvious attendees on the guest list. The unit or organization hosting the ball will invite all of its service members. Unless specified, everyone in the unit is invited and allowed to bring a guest.

In addition, the host for the event may extend the invitation to the garrison or base, additional units, senior leaders in other units and even the community at large. At some base-level events, retirees, community leaders and even representatives from local, regional or state governments are invited and attend.

Celebrities sometimes also attend military balls, and while that could be fun, it’s certainly not the norm. If you see someone famous, you should treat them with respect and normalcy, just like you would anyone else.

Can you wear white to a military ball?

Most military balls are considered formal, white tie events. That means your service member will be wearing his or her dressiest uniform. Female military spouses and dates should wear formal dresses either floor-length or no shorter than just below the knee. Anything knee-length or above is considered a cocktail dress or semi-formal and is, traditionally, not considered appropriate for a formal ball event. Male military spouses and dates should wear a tuxedo, or a very nice black suit with a tie.

That said, many modern military spouses feel that a knee-length gown (no shorter!) worn with the right jewelry is entirely appropriate. In the past, military tradition has also dictated that women have covered shoulders during the official receiving line or during dinner. Those expectations have largely gone by the wayside.

Some spouses like to match their service member’s uniform colors. For example, you might see a dark blue cumberbund to match the Army Service Uniform or a silver dress to match the Cyber Corps. But there are no rules as to what color you can or cannot wear.

Since your aim is to make your date look awesome and honor the military service and unit whose ball you are attending, make sure you keep your clothing choice classy. That means, for example, you should not show too much skin or wear anything completely sheer. Your goal should be to feel and look gorgeous or handsome in your clothing choice, without being a total distraction simply because of what you are wearing.

Related: What You SHOULD Wear to a Military Ball

When thinking about your make-up, hairstyle and whether to wear body jewelry or piercings you usually display, remember that airing on the side of caution is probably best.

Male spouses or dates should wear a dressy suit and tie, such as you would wear to a very fancy wedding. A tuxedo is not required, although you could certainly go that route if you wish.

Do we have to stay the whole time?

Planning for a ball can be tough at times. Frequently they are held on Friday nights to save the unit some money, but that means rushing from work and school to the ball. But sometimes the ball gives you the opportunity for a weekend away or just a quick overnight date.

Military balls are often held in a venue off the installation. Sometimes the units provide transportation to and from the event so they can avoid the risk of drunk driving. Often those shuttle services are free, sometimes they are available for a fee. You can ask your unit what is available.

Discounts: How to Save Money and Look Great at the Military Ball

If you have small children, you'll want to get a babysitter during the ball since bringing kids to the event isn't appropriate. Occasionally, units will provide on-site child care. Ask your unit if that's an option.

Military ball planners often will book a block of hotel rooms at the venue or nearby for service members who want to stay the night instead of driving home. Those rooms usually come at an additional cost above the price of the ticket to the ball itself, but are discounted from the regular overnight cost. Check with your unit to see what has been arranged.

Do we have to go through the military ball receiving line?

Before the formal portion of the ball starts, you may visit the receiving line. This will probably be the most confusing protocol part of the entire evening, but as the military is full of tradition, it can also be fun.

Here's how it works: While in the receiving line, you will walk in front of your service member. They will first introduce you and then introduce themself to the first person in the line, who is there to act as an adjunct or aide. Do not shake this person’s hand! (And you may want to gently remind new, younger service members and spouses of this if they are unsure what to do.)

Sometimes, there may be a calling card with your name on it. Find this from a table near the beginning of the receiving line, hand it to the adjutant and then continue down the line.

That person will introduce you to the next person in line, who is likely the guest of honor, by saying "This is (rank) So-and-So and Mrs. (or Ms. or Mr.) Such-and-Such." You shake their hand, say something like "nice to meet you" and move down the line.

Since names don't get passed down the line very well, your service member will likely then introduce you to the rest of the people who will likely be the hosting unit's senior non-commissioned officer and spouse and the unit's top officer and spouse. Greet each of these people briefly as well.

No one will arrest you or kick you out if you decide to skip the receiving line. That said, it is tradition to go through it.

If the dining area is open, we recommend visiting your seat before the receiving line so that you can leave your drink and anything else there. Traditionally, you carry a drink through the receiving line and, if you're wearing gloves, remove the one on your right hand beforehand.

One more thing: if you, as the spouse, are a recipient of an award, such as the Molly Pitcher Award, and you’re debating wearing the medal, consider wearing it through the receiving line and for the formal portion of the evening, and then take it off for the informal portion.

What is the purpose of the military ball?

Military balls are supposed to be a fun celebration, but this is still a work event for your service member. That means you should have fun, but you shouldn't get so drunk that you lose control of yourself, or that you perform a strip-tease on the dance floor.

When you arrive at the ball, if the dining room is open, find your seat and leave whatever belongings you don't want to carry around the reception. Mingle with friends, visit the bar and, if you like, get in line for a photo with the professional photographer if one is provided. Photos likely are not free -- and you may have to sign up or pay in advance to purchase them.

Go ahead and enjoy the bar, but limit your consumption so as to not embarrass yourself or your service member. Also, these are often cash bars, so be sure to bring cash. Sometimes you'll need to tip, other times not. Plan accordingly. Pro tip: the bars typically close at some point before the formal ceremony begins and open after the guest speaker is done.

Once the dancing starts after the formal portion of the evening, feel free to get down with your friends and your date, but don't make a scene that will have everyone talking for the next two months. We really can't emphasize this enough.

What else happens at a ball?

What other traditions and formal ceremonies are performed depending on your service and the reason for the ball. The entrance and exit of the colors, responsive readings, a grog bowl ceremony, cake cutting, toasts, speeches or any other myriad military ball traditions might be performed.

If you're not sure what to do during these portions, the best rule of thumb is to copy the other people at your table. Stand when they stand, sit when they sit and, if you don't know what to do during the readings, just don't say anything. There may be a program provided at each seat. If so, there's likely to be a schedule of events in it, as well as the text for the responsive readings.

Many units also include some sort of souvenir in the price of each ticket, often a commemorative wine or other glass, so be sure to take yours at the end of the night. Don't raid the other tables for left behind souvenirs -- the unit may be planning to make them available for sale later.

Military balls are supposed to be glamorous, exciting, tradition-rich, fun events. Enjoy the excuse to dress up and have a good time. Make sure you snap a few selfies and photos with friends to remember the evening for years to come.

Keep Up with the Ins and Outs of Military Life

For the latest military news and tips on military family benefits and more, subscribe to Military.com and have the information you need delivered directly to your inbox.

Story Continues