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Beantown Stomp: Low Fragrance

March 4th, 2019
fragrance, beantownstomp, contra  [html]
In an effort to welcome dancers who are sensitive to fragrances, many contra dances have decided to go fragrance free. For example, the Concord MA Thursday dance flyer has:

Similarly, the JP contra dance says "These Dances are Fragrance free", linking to the Houston dance fragrance free policy.

One thing that isn't very clear in a lot of this is what sort of expectations the organizers have for their dancers. Writing about what it means to be "fragrance free" can range from just "no perfume/cologne" to something much more thorough like Think Before you Stink, which includes not using public laundromats and quitting smoking.

On top of this, it's common for organizations to have these policies and then not enforce them. If you advertise an event as fragrance free, include in a linked policy (that most dancers won't read) that, say, dandruff shampoo (as JP does) is not allowed, and then someone shows up having washed their hair in dandruff shampoo, what happens?

I'm unhappy with these policies for several reasons:

  • You're telling people who can't be around fragrances that this is a place where fragrances won't be present, but you're not actually ensuring that. This is a large enough difference from our normal social norms that unless you make it very clear to people how things are going to be handled people won't realize what's expected of them.

  • In the other direction, people with long hair and/or textured hair are going to have a lot more trouble with a fragrance free policy than people with short straight hair. The selection of fragrance free hair products is small, and if you've found a product that works well with your hair it can be a lot of work to find a different one. This is a burden that falls disproportionately on groups that are already disadvantaged, so we should be especially careful about it.

  • Highly restrictive rules that you don't expect to be fully followed build a culture of ignoring rules. We don't want people to ignore us when we say "here's an important thing we need to do in order to make this hall safe for others". Similarly, strict but widely ignored rules fall disproportionately on scrupulous people, autistic people, and newcomers.

For BIDA's regular 1st and 3rd Sunday dances I don't think we could go fragrance free unless the broader culture around fragrances shifted a lot. First-time dancers often show up wearing perfume, cologne, or other scents because that's typically what's expected in our culture. We're not practically going to be able to get the message to them that they shouldn't do this, and if didn't allow them in we'd be cutting off our supply of new dancers. We do have a sign up asking people to avoid using fragrances, but our accessibility page doesn't describe our dance as fragrance free.

With our first dance weekend coming up we're selling tickets in advance, however, so we can tell people stuff. We decided not to use the term "fragrance free" because that can be used to indicate so many different things, and instead went with trying to describe exactly what we were looking for. After some public discussion we ended up with:

Fragrances: some dancers are sensitive to fragrances, so we'd
    like to keep this a low-fragrance environment. Please don't wear
    perfume, cologne, body spray, or other products intended to give
    you a scent. If your shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, or laundry
    detergent are mildly scented, however, that's ok.  Checkboxes for
    each of, 'I can't come without this policy', 'I don't need this
    personally, but I'm not going to wear scents', and 'I'm not sure
    what this means, or I don't think I can do this, please email
    me'

Of our ~170 dancers for the weekend, seven (4%) checked "I can't come without this policy". [1] In order to make sure people in this category can enjoy the weekend, we do intend to be enforcing this: if you show up wearing a product intended to give you a scent we may ask you to go home and shower. Those conversations will probably be awkward for everyone, so please leave off the body spray!


[1] There could be some people who would have liked to come but couldn't because the policy we chose didn't go far enough.

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