I don’t know what dinner is like at your house on a typical Tuesday, but I can tell you that at our house, we dine with a single fork and drink from one glass. But, for one night each year, we all get to class it up at our military ball. Now that you know what dinner is like at my house, you can guess that wearing a gown, using multiple forks and — who am I kidding — even going out after dark, are not my normal (but I not-so-secretly love the fanciness of it all). Even though I now have enough souvenir glasses to make a full set, I remember how nervous I was about attending my first ball. While you prep for your first ball, here are a few lessons learned that will hopefully make your night one to remember for all the right reasons.
Prom gowns are not ball gowns
When I attended my first birthday ball, I was 22. I was fresh out of college and the last time I required formal attire was my senior prom. Unfortunately, during my senior year, dresses with high slits and cut outs were all the rage. Those catwalk trends don’t necessarily have a place at a formal, traditional military ball.
Someone, somewhere once said, “Dress how you want to be addressed.” I don’t know about you, but I want to be addressed with respect. So, I avoid dresses that are too revealing, whether for lack of fabric or lack of breathing room.
Table manners are for sharing
I was fortunate to go through etiquette training, but it’s sort of a dying art in this age of slang and selfies. If you know which fork to use or which glass is yours, set the example for your table. If you think a formal place setting is like seeing all the pieces for you-assemble-it furniture (you aren’t sure what everything is for, and you’re pretty sure you’re going to have leftover pieces), take cues from others seated at your table. You’ll probably be able to follow their lead and avoid having to ask.
Here are a few basics to get you started:
- When to start — Every year, someone asks the same silly question, “Can we start eating?” Don’t start (even cutting) until everyone at your table is served.
- Silverware — I was taught to start at the outside and work your way toward the plate. So, your salad fork is first.
- Dishes — Your drink is on the right and your bread plate is on the left.
- Napkin — It goes on your lap. If you have to leave the table during dinner, the napkin stays on your chair until you return.
- Conversation —Don’t talk with your mouth full.
The speaker doesn’t care how hungry you are
The guest speaker could present for as short as 10 minutes or as long as 50 minutes. Before you arrive at the ball, have a quick snack to hold you over until dinner. I remember being so busy getting ready for my first ball that I missed lunch. So, you can just imagine how hungry I was when I received my plate. Now, that I anticipate the wait, the guest of honor’s speech is one of my favorite parts of the ceremony.
Audience participation is required
Once the ceremony starts, there will be standing, sitting, head bowing, heart-crossing, clapping and toasting. We’re expected to attentively follow along and be respectful.
Standing for a long period of time requires a disclaimer: Do not lock your knees. I’ve seen a young Marine in the sword detail fall to the ground during the ceremony because he locked his knees while standing at attention. It can happen to any of us.
Speaking of attention, your service member will likely be at attention for the majority of the standing portion of the ceremony, so don’t try to be sweet and hold hands. And, while he or she is at attention, you are not — you can discretely adjust your stance or footing while you stand. Don’t forget, when the National Anthem plays, you can move your hand to your heart.
Ball night is not date night
If you’re like me and you have kids, you’re thinking, “I have a sitter, so it’s date night.” But, just because it’s a night out, doesn’t mean it’s a date night. You’re attending a work function for your service member. Your date’s focus is likely going to be interacting with colleagues, following protocol, or he or she may even have a ball-related duty to perform. After attending 10 balls, I’ve probably spent more time flying solo than with my husband. It’s nothing to get cranky about, it’s just the way it works.
Live in the moment
When you’re feeling like a million bucks at the ball this year, help set the tone for your table and the ball as a whole. Enjoy being part of a long-running tradition, and in a world full of selfies and casual flip flops, be proud that you’re part of a community that gets dressed up and goes all out every once in a while.