Like father, like son: Burchfields carry on the belly dancing tradition

Matthew Lane • Aug 11, 2017 at 8:44 AM

ELIZABETHTON — For more than 40 years Ray Burchfield has danced down the streets of the Tri-Cities. If you've ever attended a local parade, then you've probably seen him.

He's the shirtless guy dressed like Sinbad, wielding a scimitar and dancing to exotic, Middle Eastern music. It's not something just anyone would do. But for Ray, he loves every minute of it. And now he has something else to be proud of.

His son Kyler is literally following in his footsteps.

Ray, who will soon turn 71, has been a member of the Shriners since 1974 and for more than 40 years has served as the belly dancer leading the Shriners' parade units. About two years ago, 23-year-old Kyler picked up his father's mantle.

“When I first realized what he was doing, I thought he was crazy and I didn't understand it,” Kyler said of his father's performances in parades. “Until you see what it's about and how we help the kids, how can you go wrong getting out there? It's so much fun and you can't go wrong with it.”

Founded in 1872, Shriners International is a fraternity based on fun, fellowship and the Masonic principles of brotherly love, relief and truth, according to the organization's website. The Shriners have nearly 200 temples (chapters) around the world and more than 350,000 members.

“We're out there to bring notice to the Shriners and to help get money for our kids,” Ray said. “We want to bring light to our cause.”

The cause the Burchfield men speak passionately about is the Shriners Hospital for Children — a health system with 22 locations specializing in orthopaedic conditions, burns, spinal cord injuries and cleft lip. When the Burchfields hit the parade route with their fellow Shriners, it's done to promote the organization and raise awareness of the hospital's mission.

Jericho Shrine — our region's local temple — has a 14-member band that participates in local parades. The collective sounds of bagpipes, tambourines, cymbals, drums and the iconic musette horn can often be heard long before Ray and Kyler are spotted dancing to the music.

“We used to parade on the street, but some of our members are quite old. They can't march those distances, so we put them on the float,” Ray said. The band has struggled to maintain its numbers in recent years and because of this, Ray now plays the musette horn and leaves the dancing to his son.

“If we could get enough band members to have enough music, I'd get back out there,” Ray said. “It's hard for me to sit on that float and not want to jump up and get out there.”

Ray retired from a local textile company, then got into running a sports shop in Elizabethton for 11 years before retiring again, officially. Kyler works in maintenance at State of Franklin Healthcare.

After decades of performing, Ray is recognized fairly often, maybe not always by name, but by reputation. Even Shriners in other parts of the country know of his moves. Kyler, though not as famous as his dad, is seeing his fan base grow.

“When I first started working, nobody knew me. I'd just go around and do my work. Then some of the women found out I'd done that, and they'd go crazy. I really enjoyed that,” Kyler said.

The Jericho parade unit has performed at parades throughout the Tri-Cities for decades, and most likely has been seen by folks at Christmas and Independence Day. But the parade unit also appears at other events like Fun Fest and Jonesborough Days. The band has performed at numerous competitions, won a number of awards and has appeared in the Superdome and in Washington D.C.

Members practice their musical trade twice a month on Sundays for about an hour, and musical knowledge is actually not a requirement to be in the band. Just as long as you can count and keep a beat, Ray and Kyler will lead you down the street.

“Everything we do is based on the music,” Ray said.

“We couldn't do what we do without our band members,” Kyler added. “We couldn't put on a show if we didn't have any music.”

The first time Kyler went out on the street as a belly dancer, he said he was shaking like a cat. Now, he's much more comfortable with his performances, they come more natural to him. For the first year, the Burchfields were out on the street together. The past year, Kyler has been flying solo.

“When I got out there I'm thinking, 'Oh Lord, what do I do?’ “ Kyler said. “Then I remember my dad telling me to feel the beat of the music, just go out there, have fun and entertain the people.”

And entertaining the people is something Ray hopes to continue for the foreseeable future. The Jericho Shrine is hoping to go to the South Atlantic Shrine Assocation's annual meeting in Myrtle Beach next month to perform. The SASA has 20 member temples from seven Southeast states, and hundreds of Shriners are expected to attend.

“It's a great joy and I hope to carry on this tradition for years to come,” Kyler said.

“It's been one of the most rewarding things in my lifetime,” Ray said. “And my son wanting to follow in my footsteps ... that's fantastic.”