Designing for inclusive dance education

The dancers at Rotterdam-based Misiconi Dance Company are a mixed company of people with and without disabilities. They are pivotal to the project Design Thinking = Design Doing! by design studio ST-DUO. Designers Sophie Balch and Tijn de Kok developed a set of visual learning tools with and for the dancers to work on their own personal development. We observed a workshop where a prototype of the toolkit was tested.

Video: Robbie van Zoggel

Visual thinkers, is how Misiconi’s artistic director, Joop Oonk, describes her company’s dancers. Texts or numbers are not much use to them, particularly when they relate to something as abstract as personal development. Visual thinkers need to see the route in front of them to get somewhere, Oonk knows from experience. But how do you visualize such a highly individual route within dance?

That question gave rise to the project Design Thinking = Design Doing! by design studio ST-DUO. With a subsidy from the Design Grant Scheme, designers Sophie Balch and Tijn de Kok investigated how design methods and design can help dancers with intellectual disabilities and/or learning difficulties to grow and get the best out of themselves. In doing so, they drew on a teaching method Oonk previously developed in collaboration with the UK’s Northern Ballet and Psico Ballet from Spain. This so-called Shift Dance method is based on iterative learning cycles and was developed for dance teachers to bring structure to their lessons. How could this method be transformed from an educational instrument for teachers and managers to a tool for dancers to monitor their own personal growth?

Person holds a poster
Poster Design Thinking = Design Doing!. Photo: Margarita Kouvatsou

starting grant

In 2021, the project received a starting grant from the Creative Industries Fund NL. ST-DUO used the grant for exploratory research, consisting of observations and workshops, to understand the visual-expression abilities of the Misiconi dancers. For example, the designers asked the dancers to draw abstract concepts such as breath, energy and focus. In addition, ST-DUO developed large posters. Based on this, the dancers were encouraged to think about their skills while drawing. By literally having a picture of what they could and still wanted to learn, the dancers gained a sense of this and were also better able to talk about it and share experiences with each other.

Three people stand in a certain position during a performance. One person holds a sign with a depicted figure in the air.
Design Thinking = Design Doing!. Photo: Margarita Kouvatsou


The research resulted in a publication and a follow-up project for which ST-DUO was again awarded a grant. This gave Balch and Kok the opportunity to expand their research project and develop a set of practical tools that would support the Shift Dance method while giving dancers more autonomy in their learning process. The designers gained knowledge by interviewing experts in the fields of education and inclusion, and worked out how to strengthen Misiconi’s educational practice. Based on their findings, and working closely with the dancers, they developed several teaching resources, such as talking cards to reflect out loud and goal cards to document and visualize goals. To match the visual-expression abilities of the dancers, ST-DUO gave the resources a clear design with powerful abstract shapes and eye-catching colours.

Opened publication
Publication A New Way to Grow. Photo: Margarita Kouvatsou


The knowledge gained and the learning resources have been brought together in a publication, A New Way to Grow, through which ST-DUO and Misiconi aim to provide inspiration and frameworks for inclusive dance education. For the book launch, they invited professional dancers, dance teachers and students to hopefully tap into a new group of ambassadors. In addition, Misiconi introduced the teaching method into another collaborative project at Scapino Ballet Rotterdam. The toolkit also proved to be a valuable tool for the dancers at this dance company, who do not have a disability, to use in their personal development. As an exercise to better master abstract thinking and stimulate artistic expression, ST-DUO and Misiconi see potential for a wider range of users, both in dance education and beyond.