Every year about this time, I go on a half-hearted crash diet involving tuna fish, hard-boiled eggs, and colon cleansing rabbit food. I dig frantically through the neglected stash of garments in the back of my closet in hopes of finding a dress that still fits and a pair of shoes that won’t make me walk like a Sleestak.
I stand in front of the mirror more than usual, twisting my hair into updoos, then brushing it out, over and over. I turn to the side, suck in my stomach, and rise up on my tippy toes. I inspect my toenails, fiddle through my jewelry stash, and pray that I can find my most important accessory — my Spanx.
Why would I exhibit this odd behavior every year in October? Because it’s time for the Navy Ball.
Just like the other military balls — the Army Ball in June, the Marine Corps Ball in November, the Air Force Ball in September, and the Coast Guard Ball in August — the Navy Ball happens every year to celebrate our service’s birthday, October 13, 1775.
Military balls are pretty much the same every year, with programs that include cocktail hour, the parading of colors, dinner, speeches, dancing, and some service-specific traditions such as the Army’s elaborate “Grog Bowl” ceremony.
Although these formal events don’t change much year after year, there is an unspoken expectation that one’s behavior at military balls must change the older one gets. When you’re new to the military, the annual ball is a time to enjoy yourself, let your hair down, live a little. But as the years of military service roll on, and you move up the ranks, you’re expected to “set a good example.”
What a drag.
I remember my first ball as a new Navy spouse in California in 1994. My husband and I were star-struck shaking hands with the guest speaker (a California senator) and other muckety-mucks in the receiving line. After nervously negotiating the fancy dinner etiquette, we jumped from our seats for the main event: dancing. I don’t remember my moves on the dance floor that night, but I do remember bumping awkwardly into the Senator and his wife, and being really, really sweaty.
At every Navy Ball since then, my husband and I hit the dance floor, ready to kick up our heels. My husband does the same funny little jig he’s been doing since our first dance at a cheesy Holiday Inn bar in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina nearly 23 years ago: he skips in place to the beat, with his hands folded up near his chest like a T-Rex, and his quadruple-E feet whipping alternately to each side. He forgets I’m with him while he smiles to the crowd, occasionally stopping to point at someone for dramatic effect.
But somewhere along the way, we realized that we were the “old fogies” at the ball, and with that realization came a sort of obligation to throttle back and leave the dancing to the younger folks. Those of us who already have a couple decades of formal events under our expanding belts should probably stick to the cake and coffee, perhaps stepping out onto the dance floor for one or two obligatory conservative shuffles before heading home to take our ginko biloba.
It is true that career military types like us don’t have all the moves (our teenage daughters have tried in vain to teach us to “whip” and “nae nae”), and we have never heard many of the popular songs because we’re too busy listening to NPR news in our high-mileage minivans. And yes, we do sometimes wake up the next morning from a night of dancing with bulging disks and torn ligaments.
But the fact remains that we still like to dance, and now that we’re too old to hang out at nightclubs, military balls and weddings are our only opportunities. Besides, when my husband and I get out there on the dance floor to botch the moves to the Cupid Shuffle, we are setting an example. In our sweaty state of dancing bliss, we are showing the world that making a career of military service can be fun.