The myth of the inaugural ball — couples in tuxes and floor-length gowns waltzing around a hotel ballroom, sipping drinks from an open bar, nibbling hors d’oeuvres and waiting for the president and first lady to make a cameo on stage — is one of the most enduring in Washington, and why so many people want to say they attended one.
Unfortunately, dancing the night away with an evening of inaugural glamour is going to be harder this year than it was last time around. In 2009, the Presidential Inaugural Committee designated 10 balls as “official” balls, and President Obama attended all of them. This time, there are only two that the Obamas are scheduled to attend, and the only one the public could buy tickets for sold out prematurely because of a Ticketmaster glitch.
There are plenty of unofficial inaugural events, including self-described “balls” at nightclubs and lounges, but you don’t always know who’s behind them, and they’re often not that much different from a Friday night at the club. If you want something approaching the inaugural ball experience of your dreams, your best bet is getting tickets for a ball hosted by one of the many state societies based in Washington.
What is a state society, you ask? It’s a social group that promotes the culture of an individual state through events that celebrate the food, music and other points of local, native pride. There’s the Mississippi State Society’s barbecue-and-blues-fueled Mississippi on the Mall, for example, or the Wyoming State Society’s annual Rocky Mountain Oyster Festival.
Every four years, state societies are behind some of the biggest parties in town, and each puts its own state’s stamp on the black-tie experience. Texas’s ball features line-dancing to Robert Earl Keen and other Texan country singers; Kentucky’s version starts with a pre-dinner bourbon tasting; Illinois features Chicago-style pizza and a Blues Brothers revue; four years ago, the Hawaii State Society threw its first inaugural ball to honor native son Barack Obama, flying in traditional Hawaiian musicians to perform at the Mandarin Oriental, where roast suckling pig was served.
The good news is that you don’t have to be a resident or member of the state society throwing the party in order to attend. And while state society balls require fancy dress, they’re more low-key than official events; you won’t have to pass through multiple metal detectors, and the guests are friendly. The caveat is that the events are pricy, ranging from $200 to $400 including food, drink and entertainment.
For a great inaugural experience, try one of these balls:
• The Texas State Society’s Black Tie and Boots is the biggest name in inaugural balls. In 2009, more than 15,000 attendees came to the Gaylord National Hotel at National Harbor to dance to 15 live bands, eat barbecue and see performances by Texas high school bands and cheerleaders. (George W. Bush and his family attended in 2001 and 2005; Denzel Washington was the biggest star in 2009.) Tickets for the 2013 ball, held at the Gaylord on Jan. 19, have been on sale for Texas State Society members for the last month, but will be available to the general public on Tuesday, Jan. 8, for $275 each on the Texas State Society Web site..
• The all-action Illinois State Society Ball features multiple ballrooms of music, food and dancing, all with a Prairie State theme. There’s the Blues Brothers-inspired Sweet Home Chicago performing the Jake and Ellwood Revue; restaurants serving up state fair food and Chicago deep dish pizza; live Chicago blues and oldies music (by bands from Chicago, of course); a swinging Chicago room with a big band; and a ballroom featuring memorabilia from professional and collegiate Illinois sports teams. Tickets are $260.
• Four years ago, visitors to the Kentucky Society of Washington’s Bluegrass Ball got a taste of Kentucky by taking the “Bourbon Heritage Trail” to sample delicious whiskeys from eight of the state’s distilleries. That’s the plan again this time at the Wardman Park Marriott. A two-hour bourbon tasting, beginning at 6:30 p.m., is followed by a multi-course dinner prepared by Edward Lee, the “Top Chef” contestant and “Iron Chef America” winner who cooks at the acclaimed 610 Magnolia in Louisville. Music and dancing with a band fromMorehead State University follow the meal. Tickets are $250 each, and proceeds benefit the Henry Clay scholarship, a program that brings Kentucky students to Washington for an internship.
• The state societies of Delaware, New York and Maryland are teaming up for a joint inaugural ball at the Fairmont Hotel on Sunday, Jan. 20. (Why else would the menu include both crab cakes and a “traditional New York deli” station?) The agenda includes a tasting room with foods from all three states, the “Times Square” improv theater, dancing to live music and DJs, a photo booth and a silent auction for charity. Each society is selling its own tickets for the event; New York and Delaware ($415 each) allow you to purchase online, while Maryland ($400) asks you to mail a check to the society.
• Other than live music and plenty of Southern food and drink, the Georgia State Society Inaugural Ball at the National Museum of Women in the Arts has two draws: Atlanta Braves legend Hank Aaron is making a special appearance, and Gladys Knight is among the musical guests. (“Midnight Train to Georgia,” anyone?) Tickets are $150 for members of the society, and $200 for the general public.
• Four years ago, more than 1,000 attendees crowded into the five-star Mandarin Oriental hotel for the first inaugural ball in the Hawaii State Society’s 59-year history. For the 2013 inauguration, the Hawaii Inaugural Ball moves to the Renaissance Arlington Capital View Hotel in Crystal City. It should be a little more low-key, but attendees can still count on award-winning Hawaiian musicians flying to D.C. for the occasion, traditional foods like tuna poke and lomi lomi salmon, and special cocktails. Attire is black-tie or “ethnic formal”; suggestions for the latter include a tux with an aloha-print tie and cummerbund, or outfits accessorized with flower, shell or feather leis. Tickets are $200, or $225 for Hawaii State Society members.
• The Michigan State Society and Michigan’s congressional delegation are teaming up for the Michigan Inaugural Celebration , a black tie-optional party at the National Museum of American History. Entertainment comes from Mel Ball and Colours and the Simone Vitale Band, two Michigan bands that are both veterans of previous inaugural balls. The $225 tickets include food and an open bar. Email email@example.com or call 703-637-1343 to make reservations.
More on the inauguration from the Going Out Guide: