10 things you should know about Military Ball Etiquette

One of the military traditions common for a unit that has just redeployed is a Formal Military Ball.

Since I’ve been writing an awful lot about the ball gown I’m making to wear to ours, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned through personal experiences as well as from my ever growing library of Army Wife handbooks, vintage etiquette manuals, and Military Spouse memoirs.

1. Attire:

The Service members will be wearing their official military uniform.  Gentlemen Spouses wear formal attire – usually dark suit with a white shirt and tie.  Lady Spouses likewise wear a formal dress – usually long and with good taste, short and tea length are fine as well – just use common sense.


2. Arrival: Be. On. Time!!!

One of my husband’s most respected leaders has his watch set 10 minutes ahead and called it “Mac time”.   Which means for my very punctual husband (who is always 15 minutes early) he was always technically 25 minutes early in order to be 15 minutes earlier than official “Mac time”. (Unfortunately for my husband, he married Ms Last Minute Makeup In The Car so I always have to factor in extra time to be punctual!)


3. Social Time/ Cocktail hour:

This is the social time before dinner for casual drinks and cocktails.  There usually will not be any seating, so use this time to mingle and meet some new people.  This is a great opportunity to meet your service member’s chain of command and put some faces with names.


4. The Receiving Line:

The guests of honor and their spouse, along with the Senior Commanding Officer and Non-Commissioned Officer with their spouses will be in the receiving line. There will be an aide at the beginning of the line – do NOT shake his/her hand – the aide is there to introduce you and your spouse. The lady will go first through the line and her husband follows. Allow your spouse to do the introduction to the aide and the line will continue. Short cordial greetings are used: “Nice to meet you.” Try to use their names so you have a better chance of remembering it later!  Do not carry anything in your hands through the receiving line (drinks or hors d’oeuvres). That is considered extremely rude.


5. Seating:

There will either be a seating chart available or you will have to just find seats. There will always be a head table for the guests of honor, the Commanders and their spouses. Do not automatically sit down when you find your seat. A good rule of thumb is to keep an eye on the ladies of the head table – follow their lead before having a seat. Men should seat ladies by pulling out their chair.


6. Program:

There will most likely be a program at the table that will give the order of events. Typically the color guard will be first to present the American flag and colors. Military will stand at attention while civilians will stand quietly with their hands at their sides. You should follow the flag with your eyes. There will most likely be an invocation given by the chaplain. Then the toasts will start.


7. Toasts:

The program should contain a guide as to what we will be toasting. A toast will be initiated by a designated person and the guests will respond. Before the toasts to the ladies, the men should seat the ladies. You do not have to have an alcoholic beverage to participate. Water or another beverage is just fine! (Remember; never drink a toast to yourself!)

Either the guest speaker or the dinner will follow. If there it is the speaker, sit quietly and pay attention to show respect. If dinner follows, enjoy. Use your basic etiquette to enjoy the meal. Do not get too wrapped up in being someone you are not. Relax and enjoy yourself. The colors will also be retired before the dancing begins. Again we will stand and you should follow the colors with your eyes. (You do not have to turn in a complete circle to follow it – it’s ok for it to pass behind you.)


8. Dancing:

Wear comfortable shoes (Ladies: you should not remove them at formal functions). Men should not remove their jackets/coats until the senior man removes his. Just bear with it and hope the room is comfortable enough until then! When dancing please maintain as much dignity as possible. This is a formal military event, not a nightclub.


9. When to leave:

You should try to stay until the senior man leaves. If you must leave early, it is polite to say good-bye and apologize for leaving early. Don’t make a big deal, they will understand! Try to let the hosts (i.e. the Battalion Commander) know how much you have appreciated the event sometime during the evening.  In one of my older military etiquette books, they described a situation where the Senior Couple would formally leave the event, drive around the block a few times, and return to join the ‘after party’ so as to allow folks to leave if they like.


10. Last but not least – enjoy yourself!!! And Have FUN!!!!

It’s not everyday you get to dress up for an evening with your handsome beloved in uniform!


What are your tips for spouses attending their first Formal Military Ball?

Where do you go for advice about practicing modern Etiquette?

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