I Am YEG Arts: Ivan Touko
August 31, 2023
Ivan Touko is a multidisciplinary artist who builds community connections through his passion for movement and music. Since moving to Edmonton from Cameroon at age 16, Ivan has remained steadfast in his commitment to fostering multicultural understanding and inclusivity. In this week’s I Am YEG Arts feature we learn more about Ivan’s ever growing dance practice, his experiences as a first-time filmmaker, and the important community work he does to amplify the voices of BIPOC doers and dreamers.
Tell us about your connection to Edmonton and why you’ve made it your home.
During COVID I travelled out of town, and when I came back to the airport, I had a realization that I felt at home. I am a first-generation immigrant and I moved to Edmonton in 2012 and it took me close to 10 years to truly feel like Edmonton was home, and it was a very big relief because I was just happy to be home.
Edmonton is the city that has nurtured me. Ever since I moved to Canada, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to many other places in Canada, from Toronto to Montréal to Vancouver. I’ve always come back to Edmonton. For me Edmonton is home because of the friends that I’ve made. I went to school here. I went to Campus St. Jean at the University of Alberta, which is a really small Francophone campus, so I got to know a lot of people from that community. I made a lot of friends from university. I made a lot of friends in the communities that I have interacted with from the events that I’ve produced with La Connexional, and just with dance in general. So, Edmonton has really become a place where I have roots.
How did you get your start in dance? Was it always something you knew you wanted to do professionally?
No, I’m very much a self-taught dancer for the most part. I grew up in Cameroon and I’ve always grown up going to events, weddings, funerals and all these things where I just dance. Dancing is something that has always been part of my life. My dad used to play music from all over the world; we’ve always had music around. And in my childhood, I attended some summer camps and learned some choreography, but it was never something serious. When I moved to Edmonton, I was fortunate enough to meet some friends at the Centre High Campus, and they introduced me to Sangea Academy. Sangea is a drumming and dance group based in Edmonton, and they perform all over Canada now. Sangea is what really made me look at dance as a potential professional career. I performed with Sangea for two or three years under the mentorship of Recki Lloyd and up until today that was definitely one of my most transformational experiences.
I also joined Sangea because I was really looking for something that could make me feel closer to home. Immigration can be really hard and traumatic for a lot of people, and it can be hard to adapt. When I joined Sangea I really wanted to get closer to my culture and dance, and West African drumming gave me that. I learned how to drum and how to create in dance with traditional West African moves – it can be pretty intense! And so that’s how that dream started.
From Sangea I went on to form a dance group with my friend called IOLA. We were all at university at the time and through that we were doing more Afro Fusion or Afro Contemporary, still bringing some of the traditional elements to it. And from there I just kept going with the flow. Next thing you know with IOLA we started teaching classes and then I started teaching on my own, and one thing led to another and I’m still dancing. I can’t really call it a hobby anymore because it really is a part of my life and I’ve been able to generate revenue and income out of it.
How has your passion for traditional and contemporary West African dance informed your training in other forms of dance such as salsa and bhangra?
I think when it comes to dance, the ways it informs my training and my learning about dance is that when it comes to movement and when it comes to a lot of dances in general, there is really some sort of connection. I’ve taught classes where I’m teaching a few Afro House moves and someone that was learning jazz was like “oh, I recognize this tap, but the tap is in reverse”. A lot of different dances collide at some point. And for me it’s important that even when I’m learning other dances, I try to incorporate my own groove and my own vibe to it, because ultimately dance is expression. And so, when I’m learning Bhangra, when I’m learning the Bachata, I’m not looking at moving like someone that was born in Colombia and has been doing this for their whole life. Learning how to train in West African and other Contemporary African ways of moving has given me the foundation and the tools to be able to learn many other dances. I always try to, when I’m learning these dances, to go in with a blank slate and remember that a lot of these dances have their own histories and heritages. I really think of dance as an exploration of movement, and so I always keep in mind that the teacher isn’t expecting me to copy them; they want me to learn from them and to embody the knowledge that they are teaching me.
How important is continual learning to your practice?
Very, very important. I recently applied for funding to learn some foundations of ballet. It’s very, very hard because there’s such a different foundation and techniques are I’m not used to. I’ve always wanted to increase my flexibility; I’ve been doing yoga and all these things, and ballet is one of those things that really pushes you to the edge when it comes to learning that technique. I am not going to become a ballet dancer, but I am really hoping to expand my knowledge of movement, technique, and some of my other foundations. I’m always looking to learn.
One thing that I want to add is that in today’s social media world, sometimes as dancers, some people only see us as entertainers, and sometimes we get caught into thinking we have to be learning all the time because there’s all these new challenges. I really want to put out there for any other artist that’s reading this, that you do not have to try to keep up with the trends. The trends are just trends and most of them have no intention, no history, and they don’t even take the time to actually teach you what those moves are. I’ve taken it upon myself to create boundaries that ensure that my process of learning isn’t dictated by the next trend.
In addition to your dance practice, you’re a filmmaker who’s dedicated to storytelling and amplifying BIPOC voices. Tell us about what drew you to film and what your experience working on your documentary has been like.
With some of the work that I’ve done with producing festivals and events in Edmonton that are focused on showcasing the talent and contributions of people of African Black, Caribbean and Latin descent, for the longest time, I think what I felt like was missing was us being able to tell those stories and tell those stories in a way that will create impact. Filmmaking and storytelling I think are really important for history. I am not the first person that has hosted Afrobeats or Latin inspired events in Edmonton or Alberta. There are many, many people that have come before me and so when I think about that, it’s hard to pinpoint those people that have come before me because there hasn’t been any record of that history. When I think about lifting all these underrepresented communities, how do we ensure that what we do doesn’t get lost in time? The documentary The Rise of Afrobeats in the Prairies that we are screening soon is never going to expire. In 10 years, in 20 years, it’s going to be relevant because it’s an accurate depiction of a of story that comes from the perspective of two creatives.
There is so much of this story that isn’t told, because I might not even be aware of it because I’m not part of those stories. With filmmaking the goal was really to be able to capture some of the things that we’ve done and hopefully inspire other people that are doing these things to get their stories launched. I really want to give a big thank you to Telus Storyhive and the Edmonton Community Foundation that also sponsored the documentary. When it comes to storytelling and producing a film it’s really expensive and without that support there’s just no way we would have been able to achieve something like this.
Mpoe [Mogale] and I, we are some of the protagonists of this documentary and we have other people that have contributed to the growth of Afrobeats in the prairies that speak to the importance of it; the growth of the African diaspora. Filmmaking and storytelling are a very thoughtful way to hopefully change lives and change the narratives that are out there about African folks, about people that look like me. And so, it was an important medium to explore in my continuous work of trying to not only create spaces for myself, but for other people that are going to come after me.
Tell us about your role with La Connexional now and how that work uplifts the BIPOC community in Edmonton.
I am currently the CEO & Strategic Partnership Manager of La Connexional. La Connexional is a social enterprise turned creative consulting agency that was founded in 2017. I can confidently say that it’s impacted lives. It’s definitely impacted the way people have interacted in Edmonton and some people have told me that they’ve made friends at our events for a lifetime. From my own personal perspective, from someone that has been living in Edmonton for so long and someone that was looking for those kinds of spaces, La Connexional has been a powerhouse in uplifting specifically the African, Caribbean, and Latin communities in the arts. We’re not the only players that are working towards doing these things, but I can say that we are one of the major players in the city and province.
The City of Edmonton officially recognized May 25th as Africa Day in Alberta (internationally Africa Day is on May 25th) and so through La Connexional’s Ubuntu festival, that recognition came to be. Things like that are really amazing to see because I think it speaks to again to the growth of people of African descent in Edmonton and speaks to some of the impact that we’ve created over the years. We’ve hosted the Afro Latin Festival five years in a row, which is the biggest festival of its kind in Western Canada. We hosted the Pour Me Water Festival at the West Edmonton Mall waterpark and we’ve continuously been aiming to break more barriers and open more spaces to connect all the different communities in Edmonton, not just the communities that we advocate for. We always invite everyone to attend and to celebrate with us and to celebrate these amazing cultures.
What excites you most about the Edmonton art scene right now?
It’s booming! From my knowledge of the Edmonton cultural scene, it’s thriving like no tomorrow. Almost every single week someone can find and Afro Latin or Caribbean inspired event to go to. There are so many great artists that are not only creating amazing pieces of work, but they are also continuously pushing the boundaries. I’ve always seen Edmonton as a place that has so much talent. I 100% recommend every Edmonton artist to stay in Edmonton and build in Edmonton and use Edmonton as a platform to export themselves out into the world versus trying to move to Toronto or any other of those big cities. Even though I understand the appeal of it, that would be my recommendation.
About Ivan Touko
Born and raised in Cameroon, Ivan cultivated his passion for Afro dances through Coupé Décalé, Ndombolo, Bensikin, Bikutsi and other contemporary dance styles from West Africa. Since then, he has studied, trained and/or been introduced to other styles of dance from all over the globe including but not limited to: dancehall, bachata, salsa, and bhangra.
Ivan’s energy and skills has given him the opportunity to perform and/or teach at TEDx UAlberta, Africarnival of Edmonton, UAlberta International Week and many other prestigious events. Ivan has also had the chance to be a part of international shows by recognized artists such as Burna Boy, Afro B, Major League DJz, Young Paris and Jhoni The Voice just to cite a few.
Ivan is passionate about using dance as a vehicle to relieve stress and bring people together in joyful and fun environments. Ivan currently teaches at the University of Alberta as part of their recreation program, as well as, with La Connexional, a social enterprise and leadership platform building & empowering vibrant communities while helping *BIPOC doers and dreamers unleash their full potential.