The County Assemblies: Demystified


Joy Ren

Wilton and Westport seniors at the Red and Whites ball pose for a picture.

Come fall, every junior and senior at Wilton High School receives an invitation to The County Assemblies. Lettered in fancy red script, the pamphlet mirrors a formal affair, one where sweatshirts transform into dress shirts and Ugg slippers become high heels. Due to COVID restrictions, this is the first time the event has been hosted since 2020.

Fast-forward to late-January, and preparations for the decadent ball begin. Shoppers set out to find the perfect dress or suit, making sure that their outfit is in accordance with regulations, lest they risk being sent to the “hospitality room”, where the program sends those who break the rules. 

The ball issues a strict dress code: “Black Tie long dresses or Black-Tie tuxedos are mandatory,” the pamphlet reads. Though the dress code has been subject to scrutiny over the years, the purpose, according to Counties Assembly Board members, is to stay true to the program’s formal roots. Mrs. Modungo, President of the board, said that “It’s a formal event and that was part of why it was invented; to have some formality in our own community, kind of like a cotillion.” 

“Plus,” Mrs. Ramirez, Vice President of the board, added, “It’s fun to pick out a nice outfit and have that experience.” This sentiment was echoed by many attendees. “I’m excited to wear my dress, and also for the decorations!” said junior Sayuki Layne. 

Nonetheless, some people have pointed out the difficulty of purchasing this formal attire. “They say you need to have a tuxedo in order to get into the dance, but renting a tux is really expensive if you don’t have one—like 200 dollars,” said Kate Rusin, a junior at Wilton High School and an attendee of the Counties Ball. 

The County Assemblies host four separate dances—one for juniors from the towns of Weston, Westport, and Wilton and one for juniors from Easton, Fairfield, and Redding (County Assembly Charity Ball)—and one for seniors from the towns of Weston, Westport, and Wilton and one for seniors from Easton, Fairfield, and Redding (Red and White Charity Ball).

Due to COVID restrictions in the past few years (and other factors), the actual dance and its history has remained a mystery to many students without older siblings. Current seniors had their Counties Ball canceled the year prior due to pandemic restrictions and now attend this year’s Red and Whites Ball with varying expectations.

For juniors, Counties is their first experience at a formal dance, and many went in skeptical. 

“Counties seems overly decadent and obsolete,” said Shawn Gregory. “I have high expectations. 95 dollars worth of high expectations.” 

Others expressed plain curiosity at this new and unknown experience. “I want to know what the food is like,” said Emily Gregson. “I would say I’m just here for the high school experience,” added Stephanie Tang. The Counties Ball has proved an integral custom of the Fairfield County high school experience, but a rich history lies beneath the corsages, bow-ties, and pizza bites, which are among the many experiences at the dance. 

Some attendees questioned the strict policies, including the required time restrictions. Students were to remain at the venue until 10:30 PM. “I can understand administering the breathalyzer test before and after the dance, but not leaving before a certain time feels a little off to me… it just leaves me wondering what we’re actually going to do for so long,” said senior Avni Gupta. 

“I actually liked that everyone was forced to stay there together because in other dances like Homecoming if you are allowed to leave whenever you want people just leave and go their separate ways. I had a really good time,” junior student Gracie Biondo said.

Despite a variety of opinions, few prospective attendees knew anything about the history of the program. 

Brought to fruition in 1938 by a woman named Willem Schilthius, the objective of the Counties Assembly has always been to allow the young Fairfield County community to socialize, as well as to empower young adults (originally women) to take initiative in their lives—both in regards to philanthropy and personal relationships. 

While the dance offers a time for attendees to experience the ornate process of getting dressed up and purchasing a stellar outfit, it has also made significant contributions to local charities, specifically those operated for the benefit of youth in the State of Connecticut. 

 “We want our attendees to realize that what they are doing is not just going down to the Stamford Marriott and having a grand old time but also that they are raising money for their peers in their own communities,” said Mrs. Modungo. 

This elaborate dance is no small feat. Members of the board, who Mrs. Modungo calls an “eclectic group of women,” set up and attend all four dances, rally charity money, and come up with ideas (a year-long process), yet receive no compensation. “Everyone does volunteer work. Every single dollar that we make goes back to the charities,” said Mrs. Ramirez. 

Like the social atmosphere of Fairfield County—and the entire country—the program has undergone many changes. Traditionally, the dance was proposed as a way to empower young females and give them the opportunity to take initiative and ask an escort to the dance. 

“Normally the girls have to sit and wait to be asked to go to prom or a date, and they just sit and wait. When you give them the tools to be themselves and to initiate everything, then you are kind of forcing them to put themselves out there which… helps people become more comfortable with themselves and manage difficult situations, which I think is a very valuable experience to gain at such a young age,” said Mrs. Ramirez. 

This cycle of Counties, though, allows everyone to take part in the fun, regardless of their gender. A few years ago, controversy arose as to the lack of representation that this tradition implies. If the female must ask her date, then are two males prohibited from attending? If a female wants to bring another female, can she? 

These questions inundated the Counties Assembly board, who came to the consensus that it was due time to adapt to the obvious shift in social culture, while still staying true to the (almost) century-long tradition. Many asked why it hadn’t been made sooner. 

We have done it a little slower than I think some people might have liked. Some were hesitant to let go because we did see it as female empowerment, so we made the decision for this year’s events that everyone is invited and everyone can attend.

— Mrs. Modungo

This year, both balls were full of all types of pairings, not just female and male. “The more the merrier!” added Ramirez. 

The Counties dance offers a program for students to cross town boundaries to have fun and dance, but at the heart of the program lies its devotion to local charities. Each year following both the R&W and Counties dances, the board members meet to discuss where they will donate the allocated sum of money. They send out a grant application and give local charities a month to respond, indicating where the money will go. 

“The grants committee reviews them and then they make recommendations to the board about which organizations to support. We need to know that the charity is going to sustain the program. We will vote on and announce our grants towards the end of April,” Modungo said. The community should anticipate an exciting announcement as this year marks the 85th anniversary of the program.

The money from ticket sales goes to causes like the Bridgeport, Connecticut Prom dress drive, which the committee decided to donate to last year. “Bridgeport is the largest  city in the state, population wise, but it is one of the poorest areas in the state. Last year we got involved with the communications relations part of the Bridgeport Police Department to collect dresses and we are going to do that again this year,” said Modungo.

Not only do the board members have a say in this important decision, but students of each town are represented to make their voices heard in determining which charity to send all proceeds to. 

“I don’t think many people know that students are part of our board,” Ramirez said. We do have students that get together and bring proposals amongst themselves and choose which project of their town or school that they are going to support, which I think is a very valuable experience.”

The Counties Assemblies are a keystone in many Wilton students’ high school experience, and certainly one that has been subject to change and skepticism over the years. Nevertheless, it certainly gives students a chance to connect with people from different towns and support local charities.