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Need to Know: Military Balls and Formals

Army units are getting back to holding wonderful functions known as military balls and formals, and you’ll be invited! Now, if you aren’t really familiar with these elegant soirees, here are a few simple suggestions that will help you feel more comfortable.

♦ First, since balls and formals are very fancy, you have to decide what to wear. The sponsor is expected to wear the dress uniform. If their date is also military, the date is welcome to wear a dress uniform but may wish to wear a formal dress or tuxedo. Female civilians wear either a formal gown or something equally dressy, while male civilians wear either a dark suit or tuxedo. Soldiers might wear a festive “party shirt” under their blues, which has a decorated back or festive sleeves on the white dress shirt.

♦ If there is a receiving line, be sure to go there first. In an earlier blog, we described reception lines and receiving lines.

♦ Get a drink if you wish and find the seating chart. Look in the ballroom to see where your seat is located. You may or may not be seated directly next to your sponsor, but changing the place cards to a different position is a big no-no!

♦ A bugler will sound “mess call” to invite everyone to go to their seats; however, don’t automatically sit down. Follow the lead of those at the head table or follow the guidance of the announcer. Oh, and silence those cell phones!

♦ There will be a printed program at your place to follow, and it will indicate when to sit and stand.

♦ The color guard with the U.S. flag and organizational flags will march in. Proper etiquette is to stand with hands at your sides (not on the chair back). Follow the American flag with your eyes and head as best you can, turn your body if you need to. When the flag passes six paces in front of you, civilians may place their right hand over their heart. The national anthem will be played.

♦ An invocation will be offered.

♦ Charge your glasses with wine or water, as toasts will be offered with the appropriate responses indicated in your program.

♦ An important part of military etiquette is honoring service members who have sacrificed their lives for our country. The Army does this by displaying a Fallen Soldier’s Table and highlighting it during the program. You will see a small, round table with white tablecloth set for one, consisting of a single red rose with a yellow ribbon, a sword, gloves, slice of lemon, pinch of salt, a holy book, a candle, an inverted wine glass, and a tipped chair. The chair remains empty as a reminder of the loss of a hero. As attendees, you raise your glasses but do not drink as you observe a moment of silence in honor of the fallen. (Note: There are variations of this honorable toast as well as the name of the table such as POW/MIA Table.) Each item has great significance, and we will explain the symbolism of each item in a separate blog.

♦ A punch/grog bowl ceremony may be conducted during a unit ball, reciting the unit’s history and adding spirits to this lively presentation.

♦ Use your best table manners. That includes knowing which side of your place setting is reserved for the bread or salad plate (left side), with the glasses and cup (right side). This will prevent you eating the salad that belongs to the person sitting on your right!

♦ Not long after the dinner, speeches, and the retiring of the colors, it will be time for dancing. Before that, be prepared to sing the unit song as well as the Army song. These songs are usually printed in the program. Try to wear comfortable shoes so you won’t be tempted to take them off for dancing. If need be, you might bring ballet slippers or fancy slippers to change into for dancing. Also, soldiers should not remove their dress coat unless and until the highest-ranking officer does.

♦ Just as with any party, try to find the host and hostess before you leave to tell them what a nice party it was and thank them!

We know you will have a great time as this is such a time-honored tradition packed with fun where memories will be created!


  • Protocol and Etiquette Team

    Ann Crossley and Ginger Perkins are the authors of "The Army Spouse Handbook," the go-to guide for the 21st century Army spouse. The 440-page book describes situations that you may encounter as an Army spouse, irrespective of your spouse’s rank or assignment. The book is not meant to be read from cover-to-cover, but kept handy and used as a reference book when you need to know what to expect in social situations. Michelle Hodge, a seasoned spouse, has taught protocol and customs classes and continues to be an advocate for soldiers and family members. Lynda Smith, the newest member of the Traditions and Protocol team, enjoys finding new ways to bring old Army traditions to life with fun and humorous experiences, a little old-school vibe, and a modern twist.

1 Comment

  1. Sharita Knobloch

    I can’t wait to go to a ball again!!! It feels like it’s been forever 🙂 Thanks for sharing these tips… Great resource for those who are a little rusty on military ball/formal etiquette and protocol. Keep up the good work, ladies.


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