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Welcome to the second post in the My Best Military Ball Yet blog series, The Basics of Military Ball Traditions. If you’re looking for a run through of what the heck a military ball is, head on over to the first post of my blog series! Like everything else in the military, there’s a standard set of traditions that every event includes.
So What Happens at a Military Ball?
At the very basic breakdown of the event there’s a cocktail hour, receiving line, posting of the colors, chaplain’s invocation, toasts, keynote speaker, grog ceremony, awards, retiring of the colors, dinner, and dancing. Whew! That sounds like a lot when I lay it out like that. And it is. But all together it creates a night you’ll be glad you didn’t miss. The order of the events once everyone gets to their table varies depending on the unit, but all the parts will be there!
Where Do We Start?
Every military ball begins with a cocktail hour. There’s at least one bar, but usually there are several, typically serving a full bar. I’ve never been to a ball with an open bar, so bring cash or a credit card if you plan on drinking anything besides the water at your table setting. If you’re drinking, consider getting more than one drink per trip. The lines at the bars can be incredibly long and the bar shuts down for the formal portion of the evening and sometimes doesn’t reopen for dancing.
Cocktail Hour is the Best Time to get Your Picture Taken
There’s always a photographer set up taking professional photos of each couple. We get one every year and I suggest you do, too. It isn’t often you and your spouse are done up to the nines and this is your best form of proof that it happened. They’re also very affordable. Knowing that they’re providing a service to the military and that there can be up to 500 couples, the photographers are usually very reasonable. Most of the time they don’t even require you to purchase photo packages. I’ve become accustomed to paying 10-20 dollars for 1-3 digital images with a photo release. Cocktail hour is the perfect time to get these pictures taken. You and your date will still be fresh (aka no sweating or running makeup) and once the festivities are in full swing you won’t want to pause the fun.
I Used to Think the Receiving Line Was the most Stressful Part
The receiving line is a time for the traditional hosts of the event to greet their guests and welcome them to the banquet hall. Who’s in the receiving line can vary. It always includes the Battalion/Brigade Commander and his spouse and his CSM (command sergeant major) and his spouse. At a Brigade ball it can sometimes include all of the battalion commanders and spouses as well. When you approach the receiving line the female goes in front of the male. There will be an aide who’s whole job is to take names. The military member will give the aide your name and in turn the aide will whisper your names to the first member of the receiving line. Your name gets passed down the line so that everyone knows who you are before you get there.
The members of the receiving line will always greet you first, so no need to be nervous! A big smile and a polite handshake will get you breezing right on down the line. If you have a personal relationship with any of the members of the line, it’s perfectly fine to engage with them, but you should keep it as brief as possible. There will be plenty of time to chat later and there are 700 people behind you looking to get through the line and onto dinner.
Time to Mingle
Usually the receiving line is set up so that once you’ve made it through you may enter the banquet hall. This is a great time to get more drinks, mingle with friends, and take all those awesome selfies you’re dying to take. Don’t forget to take photos with decorations or unit insignia that may be around the room. I always write on the back of the pro photos the date and name of the unit, but a giant unit crest in the background has a sense of immediacy.
Let the Formalities Begin!
When the receiving line closes an aide or the S1 will get on stage and ask everyone to take their seats. Once everyone takes their seat they’ll announce the command team. Once they’re seated, it’s time for the posting of the colors.
Posting of the Colors
The aide will ask everyone to stand for the flag. The color guard enters with The United States Flag, The US Army Flag (or your branch of service), and the Unit/Regimental flag. Your service member will stand at attention and will pivot his body to follow the flag. It’s not required for you to follow the flag, but you may feel weird facing an opposite direction as your date so go ahead and follow the flag if you feel like it. The color guard then put the flags in a flag stand and exits the room. Keep looking at the flag! 9 times out of 10 the national anthem plays at this point. Your date will remain at attention. You can just stand there, but it’s customary to place your hand over your heart.
Time to Pray
The chaplain’s invocation is a prayer. Just an expression of gratitude and a blessing for dinner. If this isn’t your first military event you’re probably used to a chaplain invocation by now. They tend to be at the beginning of every ceremony or event, no matter how big or small.
A Moment of Silence
There’s always a table for the lone soldier set up near the stage. A full place setting is there to represent the place at the table that’s left empty for the soldiers that never made it home. This is a great moment to reflect on why we’re all in this room together in the first place.
Raise Your Glasses
Next up is the toasts. These are always the same and the responses can be found in the program so no need to worry about not knowing what to do! Everything from the US Army and the President to the guests and saluting of fallen soldiers. Before the integration of sexes into combat arms there used to be a “To The Ladies!!” toast which was a nice moment when all the husbands would seat their wives and most of the guys used it as a time to tell their spouses how lovely they looked etc. They no longer do this, and I gotta say…. I miss it!
The keynote speaker can be anyone. Usually it’s someone of some sort of significance to the unit. Often former commanders who now hold senior or prominent roles in the Army speak. Or it could be a soldier who performed an incredible act of valor. Sometimes it’s the brigade or division commander. It could also just be the current battalion commander. In some of the more prestigious units the speaker can be a big name. Gary Sinise, Mark Wahlberg, and Tom Hanks are all past speakers at special operators functions. I know for a lot of people this tends to be the more boring part of the evening. But like anything else, it’s just about who does it and what story they have to tell.
No Military Ball is Complete Without Awards
If there are any awards that have been earned that the commander thinks should be given out at the ball, this is the time that it happens. This is also the time to induct any major donors or volunteers as honorary members of the unit. As I’ve gotten more involved within my husband’s unit I’ve taken a bigger interest in the awards portion of the evening. Mostly because I know the donors or volunteers personally. But back at my first ball, I just smiled and clapped politely while internally wondering where my food was. Like anything else, every moment isn’t going to be the most personal and interesting part of the evening.
GROG, GROG, GROG!!!!
The grog ceremony is my favorite part of the formal portion of the ball. It really sets the tone for the evening and gets everyone riled up. This is NOT a stuffy event. Grog is, for explanations sake, punch. I say that because once you hear what goes into it you’ll almost definitely not want a glass. Grog is made on stage by the company commanders in stages. Each company commander has a speech prepared about a significant time in the unit’s history. There’s also one or two beverages/items associated with that period of time that’s added to the Grog bowl. I’ve seen everything from whisky and water to Copenhagen and dirt added. The commanders usually get really pumped up and there’s a lot of yelling, foot stomping and table pounding as each item gets added to the bowl.
This is the moment when the ball transforms from a standard military function to a party!! Once the Grog is complete and the commanders pound a glass (yuck!) it’s time for everyone else to get a taste! The youngest soldier at each table runs up to the Grog bowl, fills a pitcher and brings it back to the table. I’ve never had a glass of Grog and I plan on keeping that streak alive! Usually the soldier brings back 2 pitchers, one of Grog and one of some sort of Sangria like punch. This last ball I went to there wasn’t a “ladies pitcher” so we all just drank the wine/beer/mixed drinks we already had.
And that’s about it for the formal portion of the evening, which means that it’s time to retire the colors. This is basically just the posting of the colors in reverse. Respect that flag and let the party begin!!
Wait, There’s Gunna Be Food at this Thing… Right?
At some balls they serve the dinner during the formal portion so that you can eat while watching the awards and ceremony and at some they wait until the formal portion is complete. Either way, once dinner is done dancing will start and that’s when the fun begins! For some of you this will be the time when you discreetly sneak out to head home and for others this is the time you’ll start shaking what your momma gave ya!
If you made it to the end of this extremely long post, thank you! I hope you learned something!! If you have anything to add that I missed or have any questions please leave me a comment below and I’ll get back to you ASAP!
If you need a basic overview on what the heck a military ball is, check out the first post in this series. Come back often to see my next post all about finding the perfect outfit for your next ball!!