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Diary of an inaugural ball hopper

Tuesday - 1/22/2013, 3:42pm  ET

Black_tie_and_boots512.jpg
The Wildcat Wranglers country western stunt and dance team greet attendees of the Black Tie and Boots inaugural ball Jan. 19. (WTOP/Stephanie Steinberg)

Stephanie Steinberg, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - Three nights. Six inaugural balls. I'm not sure what I'm getting myself into.

As part of WTOP's pre-inauguration coverage, I put together a gallery with some of the most entertaining and expensive inaugural balls around town this weekend. Seriously, I don't know who has $500 to spend on the Hip Hop Inaugural Ball — or $1,000 for VIP tickets — but if you do, more power to you.

I've never been to a ball (I'm from Michigan, where there are only weddings and bar-mitzvahs). And I'm not about to miss out on the opportunity to cover one of these events. I would have chosen one of the two official presidential inaugural balls, but WTOP only received one press pass for each. And, I'll be the first to admit, I have no business on the airwaves. I'll happily stick to writing.

So now I just had to decide which unofficial ball to attend. Should I go to the Chef's Ball where several top D.C. chefs will whip up late-night bites for guests? Or there's the Hawaiian State Society inaugural ball complete with Hula dancing and island delicacies like lomi lomi salmon tart. Then there's the chance to catch one of the dozens of celebrities headlining balls and parties everywhere in the District.

I can be a horrible decision-maker, so I took to Twitter for a little help. One of my followers had a good suggestion:

"Hopping around is probably the best call. How many times in your life do you have the chance to do that?"

It's true. An inauguration only happens every four years. Who knows if I'll still be in D.C. in 2016, or if I'll have a press pass that guarantees me free entry? So after some deliberation, I have decided on six balls to attend for a "ball hopping" adventure.

Here's my schedule (assuming I stay on track and don't run into any traffic mishaps):

Saturday:

  • Texas State Society Black Tie & Boots Ball in National Harbor, Md. -- arrive at 7 p.m.
  • Chef's Ball in D.C. -- arrive at 11 p.m.

Sunday:

  • Hawaii State Society Inaugural Ball in Arlington, Va. -- arrive at 6 p.m.
  • Peace Ball in D.C. -- arrive at 8:30 p.m.
  • Green Ball in D.C. -- arrive at 10:30 p.m.

Monday:

  • Ambassadors Ball in D.C. -- arrive at 7 p.m.
(I do have to work that day and the day after, so I thought it would be best to go easy).

In case you're curious, most of these are black-tie or black-tie optional, but I'm not going to arrive in full-blown ball gown attire. I figure a trailing dress would hamper my abilities to take photographs for the photo gallery my fellow reporters and I are producing. I'm also living on a journalist's salary. I'll be honest, three ball gowns I won't wear again aren't exactly in my budget.

For those of you reading from the West Coast or local residents who don't want to spend hundreds of dollars for a ticket to one of these parties, I hope to provide you with a little insight into the D.C. inaugural ball scene.

That's assuming my feet last in my high heels until Monday.

Saturday, Jan. 19 at 6 p.m.

Texas State Society Black Tie & Boots Ball
Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, National Harbor, Md.

I knew I was heading in the right direction as I rode up an escalator and the woman in front of me had brown cowboy boots peaking out from her lavender ball gown.

Texans claim they like to do it bigger and better than everyone else, and that mantra was evident at the Texas State Society Black Tie & Boots Inaugural Ball. Trumpets blared as a Texas high school marching band greeted VIP guests, who strutted arm-in-arm with their date down a red carpet.

As couples continued their grand entrance, they passed a mariachi band that serenaded them before they reached the threshold to the actual ball. This is where the "bigger" and "better" comes in.

High school students dressed in red, white and blue skirts, red leather cowboy boots and black cowboy hats formed two long rows underneath a glowing "Black Tie & Boots" sign. The guys and gals, known as the Wildcat Wranglers, yelled howdy and lifted each other into the air to give a sweeping wave to the couples as they entered the Southwestern world.

Last, but certainly not least, dozens of girls from the Kilgore Rangerettes dance team stood like statues along a glistening white staircase. I whispered to one of them at the end of the line, curious if they had to stand there all night.

The girl with bright red lipstick and blonde locks replied in a sweet Texan accent, "Oh, no ma'am. We'll be performing a little later." She politely nodded and smiled as the camera flashes bombarded her.

7:25 p.m.

I've been to Dallas, Texas, once, and this party was Texas on steroids.

Nearly all the men donned a black or beige cowboy hat — black was more popular — while the women had the pleasure of leaving their stilettos at home in favor of comfortable cowgirl boots. If you didn't have a pair, you could buy them from a boot stand in the "Texas fair." I considered it since my heels were already starting to hurt, but quickly turned away when I saw the $800 price tag.

Next to the booth, a man from Fort Worth, Texas, was getting his boots shined. He said he had them cleaned two weeks ago, but went to a stock show last week — which is basically a rodeo — and "they got really messy."

Beside boots and boot-shining stands, ball-goers could purchase fur jackets, beaded bags and country music CDs, and bid on special inaugural edition guitars. The only non-Texan items included Barack Obama memorabilia typically sold on D.C. streets.

Though Texas is a red state, the guests at this ball fell on both sides of the political spectrum. I sat in the back of a ballroom sampling the vegetable empanadas, and an older gentleman sporting a fire red satin shirt, silver sequined jacket and, of course, cowboy boots sat next to me with a plate of pork carnitas skewers. He introduced himself as Rick and explained that he lives in Arlington, Va., and used to reside in Dallas.

He's attended this ball for the past 20 years and said the "production" grows each year, regardless of who's in office.

"They really do a bang-up job," he said in a Texan twang. "People still come even if they don't support the president."

8 p.m.

I milled in and out of the four ballrooms that each had country music performances including Asleep at the Wheel, the John Slaughter Band and Marcia Ball.

I caught the end of the Rangerettes' Southern version of the Rockettes high kick and happened to be in the room when Jamie Fox, a native Texan, came on stage with Miss Texas. His act wasn't much of an act, but he roused the crowd by pointing with his black hat and asking what part of Texas they were from.

While tweeting a #ballhopping update, I nearly missed the infamous Nats Park president mascots jog by me in the foyer, which was now swelling with women in long ball gowns and boots. I followed the presidents through the marketplace and into a ballroom where they joined the square dance on the dance floor and started a conga line.

Jefferson and Washington climbed up on stage with the band as I left Black Tie and Boots for my second ball of the night.


10:30 p.m.
Chef's Ball
Art and Soul Restaurant, 415 New Jersey Ave., NW, Washington, DC

I wasn't going to find any Texan accents or cowboy boots here.

The Chef's Ball, hosted by Art and Soul chef Art Smith, was a classy Washington event. Top D.C. chefs catered the evening, and each chose a charity to donate the proceeds from the $75 ticket sales.

The lineup featured:

  • Erik Bruner-Yang, of Toki Underground

    Donated to The Cambodian Children's Fund

  • Scott Drewno of The Source

    Donated to Prevent Cancer Foundation's George Washington Mobile Mammography Unit

  • Todd Gray of Equinox Restaurant

    Donated to the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center

  • Rock Harper, "Hell's Kitchen" Season 3 winner and director of D.C. Central Kitchen

    Donated to the D.C. Central Kitchen

  • Mike Isabella, "Top Chef All-Stars" finalist and chef of Graffiato, Kapnos, and G

    Donated to the James Beard Foundation

My Texas experience was clearly not over as the first people I talked to were Leah and Kristin, two 20- somethings from Houston, Texas. The girls nibbled on Mike Isabella's roasted lamb gyro with yogurt and pickled onions as they told me they came straight to the event from the airport. They flew in for the inauguration and decided to get chef's ball tickets after seeing it online.

"You didn't want to go the Black Tie & Boots ball?" I asked. With food from celebrity chefs, they said this ball was better.

Ted, another out-of-town guest, sampled the spread of salmon salad, devilled eggs and pimento cheese as he lamented how there were few good restaurants where he's from in Connecticut.

Clearly, the food was going to be the talk of the night.

11 p.m.

I wandered over to the bar, where the chefs were mingling with VIP guests. (General admission tickets were in a separate room). The VIP who drew the most attention was Jesse Tyler Ferguson, perhaps better known as Mitch on the TV comedy "Modern Family."

I didn't get a chance to talk to him — he was too busy schmoozing. But I did speak with his fiancée, Justin Mikita. He explained they met chef Art Smith at an event about a year ago, they became friends and Smith invited them to the ball.

He and Jesse both wore bow ties, as did the wait staff. Justin explained they were from Tie The Knot -- a company he and Jesse started to support marriage equality.

His favorite dish so far? Chef Art's chicken and waffles. "Even though it's probably not good for me, and I'll have to work out tomorrow," he joked.

11:30 p.m.

Chef Art, whose claim to fame is as Oprah's former personal chef, was dressed in a black suit, bow tie and grey sneakers. He said he sold 600 tickets for the event and was only planning to sell 200. We chatted for a few minutes, and he explained this ball is not like other balls where there's bad food that runs out quickly.

"If you feed people, they will come," he said.

I tried asking him which chef had the best dish of the night. Was it Todd Gray's brisket with hazelnut crust? Erik Bruner-Yang's steamed coconut fish wrapped in banana leaves?

He joked he wasn't about to give one of his colleagues a top chef award tonight.

But chef Rock Harper was more liberal with his praise.

"I'm a Southern guy," he said. "I love fried chick and waffles. So it's got to be chef Art."


Sunday, Jan. 20

Hawaii State Society Inaugural Ball

Renaissance Arlington Capital View Hotel in Crystal City, Va.

6 p.m.

My family and I went on a vacation to Maui this summer, and I feel in love with the picturesque sunsets, breezy warm wind and genuinely friendly natives. I put the Hawaii Ball on my ball hopping list because I was curious how President Barack Obama's home state would celebrate his inauguration, but — in full disclosure — I also wanted to get another taste of the Hawaiian spirit.

While the Texas State Society ball entrance was all about pomp and splendor, the Hawaii State Society ball focused on honor and respect. Sixteen members of the Punahou High School JROTC color guard saluted guests with swords as they were escorted into the ball by one of the JROTC members.

Many of the guests were from Hawaii or lived on the islands at some point in their lives. I talked with one couple, John and Ann Ishikawa, who moved to Arlington, Va., from Honolulu in 2007. They stood at a cocktail table, picking at Hawaiian cuisine, with names that are difficult to pronounce.

I asked Mr. Ishikawa what the puffy white pastry on his plate was, and he explained that the "manapua" is a bun commonly filled with pork, chicken or vegetables. He bit into his to reveal a mixture of green chives.

Mrs. Ishikawa launched into a brief history lesson and described how manapua is actually a dish made by the Chinese. When Chinese immigrants came to Hawaii, they brought the recipe with them. Today, many Chinese restaurants serve it at lunch time, she explained.

Another popular dish at the Hawaii Ball: pork. Most of the serving stations offered some variation of pork — whether it was pork belly lettuce wraps or an entire pig that a chef slivered with carving knives.

7 p.m.

The ball kicked off with a performance from nearly 100 members of the Kamehameha Schools Warrior Marching Band — hailing from Obama's high school in Honolulu. Afterward, I chatted with two band members, who were clearly honored to be part of the inaugural activities.

"We're going to make history," said Michael Cardoca, 18, from Kailua, Hawaii.

Kailua resident Taylor Genkis, 16, explained the band found out in December that it would perform in the inaugural parade and started practicing twice a week for four hours at a time. In the last week, they increased their practices to every day.

Michael added that the weekend is significant because it coincides with the anniversary of the Hawaii monarchy being overthrown and his school's 125th anniversary. Their participation in the inaugural parade is an extra bonus.

"We get to share for the world a little bit of what Obama experienced on the islands," he says.

I wished them luck in their performance down Pennsylvania Avenue, but Taylor politely stopped me before I turned to go.

"Can I give you a pin?" he asked.

I must have shown a puzzled look because he quickly explained that all students were carrying pins and were told to give them to anyone they shared a meaningful conversation with.

Normally, journalists aren't allowed to accept free gifts, but I figured I could make an exception this one time.

He pulled a tiny blue square out of his pocket and eagerly dropped the pin inscribed with his high school's name in my hand.

8:15 p.m

Hawaiian guitarists were strumming their calming melodies on stage as I headed out the door. I would have loved to stay and be mentally transported back to an island where stress doesn't seem to exist. But if I was going to get to three inaugural balls tonight, I had to go.


8:45 p.m.

Peace Ball

Arena Stage at the Mead Center in D.C.

We'll, I didn't actually get to this one. I saw the line to get into the arena before I saw the front door. I drove down 6th Street eyeing the women in ball gowns crossing their arms to stay warm as they anxiously waited for their turn to get inside.

I had a feeling that by the time I found a parking spot and finagled my way inside, it would be time to leave. I needed to be at the Green Ball by 10 p.m. at the latest because there was a marriage proposal I needed to document.

9:45 p.m.

It's a good thing I turned my Pontiac G6 around because I ended up spending the next hour trying to get to the Newseum. With the swearing-in ceremony in the morning, nearly every street by the Capitol was blocked, and I was finding it quite difficult to make a left turn — not to mention find a place to park.

I thought I lucked out with a parking garage a few blocks from the museum, but was informed by the attendant that it would close in an hour. As I drove further and further away from the Newseum, I contemplated giving up and going home. But a parking sign sticking out from the Chinatown Gallery Place shopping area caught my eye.

My GPS said I was now about a mile from the Newseum. I sighed as I turned into the structure and braced for the trek in my black three-inch pumps.


Green Ball

Newseum in Washington D.C.

9:45 p.m.

The walk to the Newseum with already blistered feet was a walk I'd rather forget. I was about to head into the green carpet entrance when a man in a suit materialized and told me to stay back. A ball organizer appeared right behind him and explained everyone had to "hold" for a few minutes. No one in. No one out.

I haven't been a journalist in D.C. for long, but I knew someone big was about to make an entrance -- or exit.

"Who's coming?" I asked.

The woman wouldn't say anything and the man was looking at everything else but me.

I got out my Nikon and prepared to capture whoever was about to walk 50 yards in front of me. The woman then edged a little closer and whispered, "I think it's Biden."

Life is really about being in the right place at the right time.

I snapped a few pictures to test the lighting and held the camera to my face so I wouldn't miss him. Sure enough, two minutes later, the small crowd flanking the carpet began to whoop as several men sprinted out the door and into a motorcade in a matter of seconds.

I clicked away, hoping I got at least one clear shot. It honestly happened so fast, I didn't even see the vice president. I scrolled through the six photos full of Secret Servicemen. The last one had a blurry image of a man waving his right arm. Half his body was covered by another man on his left.

Oh well, at least I tried.

I then headed inside in pursuit of Kirk Williams, the man who won WTOP Living's contest for two free Green Inaugural Ball tickets. Kirk was planning to buy tickets to an official inaugural ball and propose to his girlfriend then, but when Ticketmaster mistakenly released tickets a day early, his romantic plans got tossed aside.

WTOP decided to help him out and give him a second chance. He didn't want to interrupt the event by making a big show on stage -- though organizers offered him the opportunity -- but he did say I could be there for the moment to take pictures. I just had to find him among the hundreds of people.

10 p.m. I checked in at the VIP desk and asked the volunteers to help me track down DeLinda, a representative from the National Wildlife Federation I was working with who knew about the secret plan. It took a few minutes since she was on a mission to find a table for the mother of singer will.i.am, who was about to go on stage.

10:25 p.m.

With just a few minutes to spare, DeLinda and I met Kirk and his girlfriend Ivy in the VIP area on the second floor. Kirk hugged me like I was a longtime friend and whispered in my ear, "Where should we do this?" I was in no position to plan a proposal and looked to DeLinda for help.

We ended up navigating to the other side of the floor near the exhibit where you can film your own newscast. I worried Ivy could sense something was up, but she figured whatever we were about to do was part of the radio contest. In a sense, it was.

DeLinda left to go tend to another task, while I awkwardly backed away a few feet away and out of earshot to give the couple some privacy. Neither of them noticed my flash going off as soon as Kirk knelt down on one knee and proposed.

There was no hesitation before Ivy said, 'Yes.'

10:40 p.m.

The ball-hopping was starting to take its toll. "Man, do you look tired!" Kirk said to me after I congratulated them and asked a few follow-up questions for a story.

My back was starting to feel stiff from standing all night, and my feet were already numb. I told them I was going to head out soon, and they should enjoy the rest of the night.

I was halfway down the staircase when someone said Nicholas David from Season 3 of "The Voice" was performing next. I was already there. How could I miss an opportunity to photograph him?

I squeezed my way toward the stage on the main floor and managed to get a few feet away from the soul singer, who got the crowd rocking with his rendition of "Stand by Me."


Monday, Jan. 21

Ambassador's Ball

The Historical Society of Washington D.C.

6 p.m.

The first-ever Ambassador's Ball was the last one on my agenda. Dozens of ambassadors from countries ranging from the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago to the Republic of Botswana were expected to attend to promote a message of peace and unity.

I was on the lookout for dignitaries, but found few toward the beginning of the event. I did, however, talk with several women dressed in glamorous ball gowns who traveled from overseas to attend the inauguration.

Ann Etoke flew 14 hours from Cameroon, where she is a nurse, to see the president sworn-in.

"I was so excited to support President Obama and what he's doing for immigrants and making sure they have a better life," she said, holding the green, red and yellow flag of Cameroon.

Another woman draped in a white dress with black writing made by her friend in Kenya said she was from Johannesburg, South Africa, where she is the director of Sibisi Gallery. The 26-year-old named Thandi Sibisi said she is the first black woman to open an art gallery in South Africa.

Sibisi said she's been an entrepreneur the past seven years and decided to open the gallery last year. Every month, she showcases South African artists and has clients from all over the world. She explained that Obama is one of her inspirations in life and she wanted to be in D.C. to celebrate the "historical moment."

"Every day when I have trouble waking up, I think of him and that he can achieve all the things he can (despite) all the negativity in the world," she said.

8 p.m.

More beautiful women glided into the Carnegie Library wearing some of the most expensive looking dresses I had seen the past three nights. The organizer of the ball's afterglow party told me she flew to New York to get her gold gown made by designer Tarik Ediz. Another woman modeled a black Tracy Reese dress, while others got their gowns abroad.

As more guests arrived, those with important titles were asked to walk down a red walkway and pose for photographs. Miss USA Nana Meriwether -- the first Miss USA from Africa -- and Miss Teen USA Logan West generated a lot of buzz. Dressed in a cream rippled gown and her "Miss USA" sash, Meriwether stopped in front of the TV cameras to share why she supports President Obama, before being whisked off to another room.

I chatted for a few minutes with Lauren Allah, who was one of the first to be presented on the carpet. The 20-year-old from Troy, Mich., competed on Season 3 of NBC's "The Voice" and was asked to sing the national anthem at a campaign event for President Obama at Bowling Green University in September.

She must have made an impression, because she received an invitation to sing the national anthem for the ball tonight.

I was curious if she was nervous to sing in front of the president, and she emphatically shook her head no.

"My mom always taught me to never be nervous and to just sing your heart out," she said while smiling at her mother standing next to her.

"Just watching her singer career blossom has been a really great experience," her mother, Lorie, gushed.

9 p.m.

It was relatively early, but after spending the past two nights out, I was ready to go home. I stayed long enough to hear Botswana ambassador Tebelelo Seretse's opening remarks and listen to Lauren belt out the anthem.

I grabbed my coat from the coat check and was heading toward the door when I bumped into a woman wearing a crown titled "Celebrity Queen." She had red, white and blue sparkling stars pinned on a white ball gown, which also had the titles "miss liberty" and "celebrity woman of the year" taped on it. Needless to say, her dress stood out like a sore thumb among the elegant, sparkling gowns.

Quite fascinated, I took her picture and asked for her name. "You don't recognize me?" she asked incredulously.

"Uh-oh," I thought. "Is this someone I should know?"

I went with the safe answer -- the truth. "I'm sorry," I told her. "I'm afraid I don't know your name."

"Why, I'm Miss Celebrity USA," she with a matter-of-fact tone. "I was on NBC three times this week."

I wanted to ask her more, but she was too worried about finding her videographer, who was supposed to follow her around the ball and film her escapades for a TV show.

I handed her a business card in case she had time to talk later, and she stuck it in her dress top. "I hope I don't forget it's there," she giggled. She patted my cheek and told me I looked "so cute" before she bustled off.

After that interaction, which I can only describe as "interesting," I made my way out the door. I was halfway to the Gallery Place Metro station when I overheard a young woman a few paces back pleading with her date to slow down.

They had been to an inaugural ball that had no seating, and her feet were likely as sore as mine.

"You just don't understand how painful it is," she whimpered to her date.

He may not have sympathized, but after attending five inaugural balls in three nights, I sure did.

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