The Westchester Lariats was founded in 1950 by Dr. and Mrs. J. Tillman Hall. It started as an extension of the Friday afternoon square dance classes taught by Dr. Hall at the request of neighborhood parents in Westchester. Dr. Hall said, “I was a college teacher most of my professional life, but always loved teaching kids. Dancing was a part of my rural life as a youngster, and so I agreed to teach the classes as a way to help my own children and others to develop self-confidence, social skills and to have fun.”
At the time, classes were offered to students in grades 2nd through 12th grade. Dr. and Mrs. Hall recently recalled that it wasn’t long before some of the youngsters were so accomplished they were being asked to perform at local service and social club events. The Lariats was formed to provide these students, selected on the basis of skill, personal character and grades in school, with an opportunity to be further challenged by guest choreographers and to perform what they learned.
Over the next 24 years, Dr. Hall taught thousands of youngsters in his Friday classes and rehearsed with the Lariats every Saturday morning. At any given time, approximately 200 members belonged to the Westchester Lariats. Each summer 20 young men and 25 young women were chosen to tour with 10 adult chaperones for 4-7 weeks. On their tours, they traveled throughout all 50 states, the Canadian provinces and nine countries in Western Europe. By the time Dr. Hall retired as executive and artistic director of the Lariats in 1974, the group had given over 2000 public performances and had toured 17 consecutive summers. With a repertoire of over 100 dances, they were featured performers at numerous coast-to-coast television shows at the Forum, Sports Arena, LA Coliseum, Hollywood Bowl, and L.A. County Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to name just a few Southern California performance venues.
During the last seven years Dr. Hall was director of the Lariats, his younger daughter, Jody Hall Esser, served as the group’s main choreographer. During this time, she created more than 75 new numbers for the group and re-staged other signature numbers that remained in the group’s repertoire. After Dr. Hall and Jody retired from the Lariats, they continued to receive requests for special performances and new production numbers from producers/directors with whom they had worked over the years. Between 1976 and 1982, they accommodated such requests by gathering together retired Lariats with ten or more year’s performance experience once or twice a year. Jody choreographed new numbers which were intensively rehearsed and performed at such venues as the L.A. County Music Center’s annual Folk Dance Festival.
Denny Delurgio took over the Lariats when Dr. Hall retired in 1974. Denny had been a dancer with the Lariats under Dr. Hall’s direction. She served as the Artistic Director from 1974-1981.
Tom and Nance Mazzola were directors from 1981-1987.
Billy Burke was Artistic Director from 1987-1989.
The 1990s saw many talented dancers lead the Lariats. Cozette Vergari directed the group from 1990-1992. Ann Kwinn, an ex Lariat, took the helm from 1992-1993. LynnAnne Hanson, Dawn Dyson, and Jennifer Benjoya, dancers from the professional folk dancing company, AMAN, served as Artistic Directors from 1993-2000.
In the year 2000, the Lariats celebrated 50 years of nonstop dancing and performing with a dinner honoring Dr. J. Tillman Hall.