Easy 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.

What is expected of military spouses or dates at the ball? 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. 

The biggest question: What to wear

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.

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 dictated that women have covered shoulders during the official receiving line or during dinner. Those expectations have largely gone by the wayside.

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 gown 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.

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When thinking about your make-up, hair style and whether to wear any 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 wished.

Getting there and back

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

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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. Check with your unit to see what it has arranged.

The receiving line

Before the formal portion of the ball starts, you should visit the receiving line. This will probably be the most confusing protocol part of the entire evening.

Here's how it works: While in the receiving line, you will walk in front of your service member. He will first introduce you and then introduce himself to the first person in the line, who is there to act as an adjunct or aide.

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. You shouldn't carry a drink through the receiving line and, if you're wearing gloves, remove the one on your right hand beforehand.

How to act

Military balls are supposed to be a fun celebration, but this is still a work event for your service member. What that means is that, while you should have fun, 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, feel free to find your seat and set down in your chair 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.

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.

Other traditions

What other traditions and formal ceremonies are performed depend 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.

Enjoy yourself!

Military balls are supposed to be glamorous, exciting, tradition-rich, fun events. Enjoy the excuse to dress up and have a good time.

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