The first whisp of (fake) fall has blown through North Carolina, which means I’m now staring at a rainbow (not the full spectrum, of course, mostly black, red and blue) of evening gowns to see which one will get to make a repeat appearance at the Marine Corps Birthday Ball.
Not to spoil the ending, but it’s none of them. I will shamelessly buy a new dress again this year, despite now having 15 years of ball gowns taking up space in my closet. It’s fair to call buying a new dress a tradition for me, and we all know how the Marine Corps loves its traditions, so here’s to number 16, I guess!
Each of these dresses has a story. Each of these dresses represents a year as a Marine spouse — like a little sequin-studded tally mark — and as I slide the hangers from right to left, I’m reminded how much I’ve changed since the night I wore each dress. There’s an evolution in this collection from what my salty friends and I refer to as “the baby spouse” — which is really just another way of saying a noob (I hope I used that correctly, learning new words from my almost-teen son constantly, but too nervous to ask him to explain further for fear of the dreaded eye roll) — to well, current me who still loves the ball and the Corps, but is a little less bright-eyed about the whole night.
Noob me (please, tell me I’m using this right) wore an uncomfortable strapless, sequined red gown, and nervously brushed up on the formal place-setting instruction from cotillion. I remember feeling like I needed to present myself as Emily Post reincarnate so I didn’t look out of place or commit a faux pas in a room full of such elegant women and distinguished gentlemen. I just knew I was already behind the curve because I had no ballroom dancing training — just the two-step every Texan is born with and four years of high school dance experience, which was either swaying side to side or “getting low” at the request of Lil Jon; there was no in-between. Dance skills clearly lacking, I just knew I’d be tossed out of that ballroom if I picked up the wrong fork or dug into the salad too soon (okay, maybe not that extreme, but the self-induced pressure was on, and now you know I’m an overthinker at my core).
The best way I can describe the sensation that washed over me as that first ball kicked off is this: Spending countless hours stressing over and studying for a major exam, only to walk in on test day to have the teacher announce that she’s in a good mood and she’s decided to make it open book. It’s half relief and half resentment for the time you wasted.
I would never expect the average first-time military ball attendee to sweat it like I did (“It’s me, I’m the problem, it’s me…”), but if you’re facing your first formal military event this fall, and you’d love some salty pro tips, consider the following my Marine Corps birthday gift to you.
The Dress. Let’s see if I can walk the fine line between camps here. Personally, I’m a floor-length, leave-some-breathing-room, classic dress person. If you aren’t, that’s cool with me. My best advice here is to wear something comfortable that you feel good in. You don’t want to be tugging on your dress all night. There will be sitting, standing, eating (although not much, more to come on that) and dancing (if that’s your thing). Since I’m a person who also always asks friends what they’re wearing to any given event to make sure we’re in sync, I’ll also share that most of the dresses at these events are long.
- Pro Tip One: I like to buy dresses secondhand so they’re a little older and less likely to be worn by another lovely lady.
- Pro Tip Two: I am continually drawn to dresses with trains — not like royal weddings, but more like a few inches that drag behind you. They’re classic, glamorous and unfortunately not military-ball friendly. I took the bait a few years back, knowing we were no longer in the dancing age range, but that dress was destroyed — shoe prints and rips, mostly courtesy of my forever date who was tasked with keeping other Marines from stepping on it.
The Ceremony. I can only speak for the Marine Corps Birthday Ball here, but I suspect that the other services follow a similar algorithm. It goes:
- Cocktail Hour: Arrive sometime during this window.
- Call to Dinner: Make your way to your table. Yes, it’s assigned seating. You’re going to be there for a while, so make sure you plan for any bathroom or beverage needs.
- Welcome: The narrator will read the scripted welcome.
- Video Message: In the Marine Corps, we get to watch the year’s most motivational video with an action-heavy B-roll and a message from the commandant and sergeant major. Do not be alarmed if you hear “Ooh-rahs” or barking (or your branch’s equivalent) when a specific airframe or unit gets a cameo in the video. This is normal.
- Post-Video Huddle: Now, you won’t see this on the program, but everyone at your table will lean into someone next to them or share with the table their reaction to the video. Criticism like, “Last year was better,” or “Not a single Herc,” is possible, but the dialogue is mostly a more PG-13 version of, “That was awesome!”
- Adjutant and Color Guard: There will now be a lot of yelling orders, marching and really old songs that will probably give you goosebumps no matter how many times you hear them. This is the meat of the evening (aside from the meat you’ll eat). Be ready to stand up, sit down and repeat. The color guard will march in and present the colors. At my first ball, I sort of slow-motion raised my hand to my heart for the national anthem, not knowing what to do since most of the room just stood at attention. There is no announcement to stand and cross your heart like a baseball game, so just be ready for that!
- Guest of Honor: Seated at the head table with the commanding officer is the guest of honor who will deliver a speech. Now, this is critical. Everyone is hungry at this point, and everyone’s growling stomachs are at the mercy of this speaker. The speech could be a quick 10 minutes, but I’ve sat through 30 minutes before. If you’re the type who needs a little snacky snack every couple of hours, I’d grab a bite before you show up. Joking aside, I’ve heard some great speakers, so fight off the hunger pangs using the hype from that opening video and focus on their message.
- Cake: The Marine Corps likes to work in bookends here, recognizing the oldest Marine present and the youngest Marine present. You might not need this tip for your first ball, but you will eventually be audibly shocked at the birth year of the youngest Marine. Feel free to also engage in a friendly bet at the table leading up to the announcement. There was a collective gasp the year we crossed over from 1999 to 2000.
- Enjoy Your Evening: This is code to begin eating. If eating has already begun, that’s okay. Just follow the crowd. But, ladies, know that the men at the table aren’t supposed to start eating until you do, so if they look famished and the rest of the room is digging in, be a hero and pick up your fork. This is also the all-clear to get up from your table. Once dinner is over, the party starts.
- The Food: All I’ll say is that I’ve never had a meal at one of these events that changed my life. Expect “meh,” and if you get something extraordinary, then you’ll be happy! This can apply to several military-connected scenarios.
- The Pictures: Whether you stand in line for a posed photo, or your phone captures the memories, just take pictures. My biggest regret is attending these things for 15 years and only having a handful of non-blurry photos. Get someone to take your photo. Do it at the beginning of the night before you get sweaty and tired. Make sure it isn’t blurry. Make it a priority.
- The Dancing: I could hang the first few balls, but I no longer know what is happening out there. Everything born after the Macarena and the Cupid Shuffle is not for me. That said, you can dance if you want to (80s music reference, anyone). If you don’t want to, or your feet aren’t having it, this is the time of the night when my Marine and I usually make our way out of the ballroom, along with our friend group, and hang with the other people who complain about the music being too loud to have a conversation. These are our people now.
- The Closer: Above all else, enjoy your night. Arrive comfortably. Let yourself be moved by the camaraderie, loyalty and tradition in the room. Follow the crowd on the formal stuff. And always say yes to cake.