Weary ball-goers rest their feet and wait for friends and coats on the steps inside the Convention Center. (Debra G. Lindsey/The Washington Post)

It’s less than two weeks until President Obama’s second inauguration, and would-be Cinderellas are still waiting for an invitation to the ball.

The question, of course, is which ball.

A cottage industry springs up every four years of inaugural-themed parties and promotions. Makes perfect sense, because demand for tickets to the official festivities — the ones the president attends — always exceeds supply. The past decade has seen an explosion of other, self-proclaimed inaugural “balls” — a savvy marketing trick, but confusing for everyone else.

It’s all about managed expectations. Before you pay a small fortune to score a couple of tickets, consult our guide to the balls:

• Official balls : Hosted by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, these are the only parties where the president, first lady and vice president are guaranteed to show up and waltz around the stage.

In past years, there have been a dozen or more official balls. This year, there are only two, both on Monday, Jan. 21 at D.C.’s Convention Center: One for members of the military (tickets are free), and “The Inaugural Ball,” billed as a “unified celebration” for everyone else. The vast majority of these tickets will go to campaign donors, grass-roots volunteers and other supporters lucky enough to get an invitation to buy a ticket (which we’re told haven’t gone out yet). Others include corporate sponsors who, for a donation of $10,000 to $1 million, will get two tickets. There were also a limited number of $60 tickets offered to the general public — but those were snapped up within hours Sunday due to a Ticketmaster computer glitch.

• State Society Balls : Since the official balls are fraught with problems (big crowds, cash bars, little or no food), inaugural veterans have migrated to the parties thrown by states, where guests get food, drink, entertainment and a chance to rub elbows with members of Congress and other actual power players. Two standouts: The Texas Black Tie & Boots Ball (six stages, all-you-can-eat Texas-buffet, open bars), Jan. 19 at the Gaylord National Resort, and Michigan’s dinner dance (valet, dinner, open bar), Jan. 21 at the National Museum of American History.

• The corporate-underwritten bashes : Can there be a big political happening without celebs and free drinks? Of course not, but these are usually invitation-only events, more cocktail-party than “ball” per se. OurTime.org is hosting “The Generation Now” Party with John Legend on Jan. 19; Daily Beast and Credit Suisse are teaming the next day for a brunch at Cafe Milano with Eva Longoria.

• Unofficial balls : Here’s where it gets tricky, so caveat emptor. Obama fever was so high in 2009 that some promoters collected thousands of dollars for “balls” that promised much but delivered little or nothing: The American Music Ball hosted by Dionne Warwick (with George Clinton, Chaka Khan and the Temptations) was canceled the day of — some ticketholders didn’t find out until they arrived for the ball. A “Heroes Red, White & Blue” Ball billed Jamie Foxx and Nas but that original lineup evaporated; they did end up snagging George Clinton after his earlier engagement collapsed, as well as other musicians. The promoter for the Veterans Ball abruptly canceled the event and vanished with the $385 for each ticket.

This time around, there are dozens of independent balls representing various causes (i.e. the Green Ball or Inaugural Brewers Ball) that, at best, could turn out to be a good party — but will definitely not deliver the president or first lady.

Here’s the real ticket: If the list of promised names to a high-priced ball sounds too good to be true — it probably is.

See the Going Out Guide’s list of inaugural events

More 2013 inaugural events

12 p.m.: This item has been updated

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