Tuesday, May 18, 2021

A brief history of Rock Shoes (1956-1990)

If there was ever an item of clothing to epitomise the style and fashion of an era, it would have to be shoes (or their absence). Visit any cd store and you can pick up a dozen covers of compilation hits and three quarters of them will depict the age with fashionable shoes of the time. What's more these are instantly recognisable. This very sentiment was caught in the lyrics of the pop song "It's still rock and roll to me"

How about a pair of pink sidewinders (sandals)
And a bright orange pair of pants?
You could really be a Beau Brummel baby
If you just give it half a chance.
Don't waste your money on a new set of speakers,
You get more mileage from a cheap pair of sneakers."
Next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways
It's still rock and roll to me.
Billy Joel

The most famous shoes of the rock and roll era were Carl Perkin's Blue Suede shoes. Although Elvis Presley had the big hit the credit was always given to Perkins. The idea for the song came from his early days when he and Johnny Cash were queuing for some tucker. Someone in front cried a warning to another in the queue not to tread on his foot. 'Hey don't step on my blue suede shoes". Cash was moved to say to his companion that would be a good title for a song. Later, when Perkins was playing in a dance hall he noticed one of the dancers gesticulating to his partner not to stand on his feet. The following morning, or so the story goes, he woke up with the song lyrics in his head. Unfortunately a road accident prevented him from performing the hit and Elvis, in need of a follow-up to Heartbreak Hotel took 'Shoes' to the top of the charts and the rest, as they say is history.

Buddy Holly, by contrast wore brown or green suede shoes.

The American youth culture of the post war period was obsessed with their freedom and had the affluence to indulge in the merging fashion industry. This had a major impact around the world. By the fifties jive was established and the frankest portrayal of sex yet performed. Kids no longer needed the dress as their forebears did but instead needed to be free to jive. The war babies had for the first time money to spend on themselves. Clothes records and cosmetics were now available for teenagers, which suited their style and not their parents. At first nothing changed. The young had money but manufacturers had not woken up to the potential sales. In the UK styles filtered down from Belgravie and young people were expected to become young ladies and gentlemen with any reference to sex in dress completely played down. Similarly the North American youth followed conservative fashion but the world was in for a rude awakening. Blue Suede Shoes united the kids in this youthful rebellion, or so you might think. In truth Carl Perkins was singing about up market Penny Loafers much favoured by the Ivy League in the US. Loafers are essentially a two-piece moccasin with a hard sole and a strap or saddle, made of leather, over the instep. The name 'loafer' comes from the German 'landlaufer' meaning a wanderer, or vagabond. The Penny Loafer was also known as Kerrybrooke Teenright Smoothies and had a good luck penny stuck in the leather saddle. Worn by "Preppies", the style was popular with both sexes. Suede was a shoe cover preferred by effeminate men so the kids took to them, to flaunt convention.

Meantime the rebellious Teddyboys in the UK; Halbstarke in Germany; and Blousans noirs in France were wearing Brothel Creepers. By comparison a cheaper suede shoe worn with two inch thick crepe soles. A hybrid of the desert shoe their appeal lay in their deliberate crudeness and the name, demonstratively spelling out the sexuality of the shoe. Officers during the desert campaign in North Africa originally wore the humble desert boot. These were suede bootees made with lightweight and hardwearing crepe soles. The origins are blurred but it is thought Egyptian cobblers made the shoes for the soldiers. The fashion was developed by Clarke's of England and when treated suede became available (ie Hush Puppies) then desert boots became popular with middle class smoothies. Many were single men who had for one reason or other not been married (perhaps because of the war). In any event they were often see around the nites spots of Soho and Kings Cross and hence the name brothel creeper.

The new Teddyboy brothel creepers were as aggressive as desert boots were urbane. Worn originally with drapes and drainpipe trousers they were a variation of the sartorial style of Prince Edward, hence the name teddy boy. An interesting innovation was the unconventional use of a bootlace, Emerging youth culture appeared across the world and Bodgies or widgies (girls) became the new Larrikins of Australia. The Bodgies combined the US & UK fashion, adding a hint of Italian, the juveniles appeared in Spiv suits worn with pointy, white shoes. Later with crossover rockabilly, crocodile skin shoes became the business, especially worn with black satin shirts. Dress codes became very important in public places like dance halls and pubs. All in all the style was the right image for angry young men and women and made up the post war generation, which were about to burst into life. No shrinking violet, Little Richard combined the flash with the brash and spearheaded the glamorous sartorial style we now associate with early Rock 'n Roll. Brothel Creepers made a brief reappearance two decades later but were no longer the sign of youthful rebellion. Instead they were rather a shade of their former glory and like the imitation crocodile and leopard skins they became contrived bad taste of the post glitter era.

The Chicago jug bands of the 20's with their make shift instruments became the inspiration for a short lived fad in the fifties, called skiffle. Probably outside the US, Lonnie Donnigan became one of the first guitar heroes of modern music. He started life in an English jazz combo run by Chris Barber. In keeping with their off the wall music, skiffle bands wore non conventional clothing including sandals (thongs) on stage. The fashion was made popular at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics when the Japanese swimming team, wore getas as sports sandals. The new hip generation or Bohemian Beatniks were ‘cool dadio’ in their open toed sandals or bare feet.

By 1957, Sydney's bodgies & widgies (Teddyboys and Teddygirls) abandoned their restrictive "St Louis Blues" (rhyming slang for shoes), and came to rumble in their bare feet.

The famous 'duckwalk ' was invented by Chuck Berry was a rouse to distract the audiences' attention from his poor quality, wrinkled suits. However it did not stop other artists from incorporating similar silly walks into their stage presentations. Despite his massive hit with Blue Suede Shoes, Presley seldom, if ever appeared in public wearing them. In Jailhouse Rock his adoring fans caught 'The Pelvis' sporting sneakers and saddle shoes (a close relative to the penny loafer). The fashion was officially sanctioned when James Dean was photographed wearing Levi jeans and white Converse Jack Purcell's. Jack Purcell was a badminton player who endorsed the only trainers with smiles.

Later, when West Side Story depicted the Jets and Sharks about to rumble, wearing their sneakers this was art imitating real life. Overnight sneakers were cool and just as well because the jive was especially energetic dance. Its spasmodic body movements interspersed with vigorous gyrations meant lightweight durable footwear was ideal. These both encouraged freedom of movement as well as offering greater traction on the dance floor. As fast as you could sing "High Heeled Sneakers" canvas topped shoes replaced "Blue Suede Shoes" as the symbol of youthful rebellion.

The word sneaker was first used in 1875 and it referred to an early croquet shoe, which was developed in the US. Because they were cheap (originally made from rubber off cuts), the shoes was worn by high school students around the world.

In the 50's young ladies were not encouraged to participate in contact sports instead North American High Schools encouraged them to become cheerleaders and support the young men engaged in active sport. Teenage cheerleaders wore tight sweaters, short skirts, ankle or bobby socks with canvas topped shoes produced by the US Rubber Co. Originally these were called Peds but the name had already been copyrighted and was changed to Keds.

Young men wore chucks, which were a sneaker designed for basketball. Chuck Taylor played for the Buffalo Germans and Akron Firestones, his association with "Converse All Stars" was so great the shoes became known as 'Chucks'. Chucks had been available since 1921. Soon the sole pattern of sneakers became every bit as important as the upper designs. This US dominated fashion was reflected across the globe primarily through the emerging teenage cinema and television. Needless to say parents and authorities condemned every new fad vehemently, which only endorsed, in the minds of the youth, the way to go.

'Ton Up Boys' or bikies were considered outlaws and tougher than the Bodgies (or Teds). Their main obsession was motor bikes and they wore leather jackets (with or without gang colours), white Ts, blue jeans, studded belts, and engineer's boots. The significance of the above the ankle boot was very sensible as it protected the lower leg from the damaging heat of the bike's exhaust. The heavy boots also, by coincidence provided a useful offensive weapon to use in the ubiquitous rumble with sworn enemies.

The fashion was crystallised in every would be rebel, by the film 'The Wild One" starring Marlon Brando. So powerful was censorship at the time, this film was not screened in some counties until the 1970s. Later cowboy boots replaced the dull engineer's boots as the fad for Rodeo swept US & Australia. Based on the design of Mexican riding boots (or vaquero) these sat well on the bike but the shoe portion was made tight making walking very difficult and often painful. Two distinctive physical characteristics of the new breed of juvenile delinquent became apparent. Their walking style and their language. Every country had their own "Wild man of Rock", the original was Jerry Lee Lewis, all others paled into insignificance.

No self-respecting rocker went without their distinctive pompadour quaff with Duck's Arse (DA). This required the ubiquitous hair comb as an accessory and emphasis on the macho meant, 'Flickcombs' were essential. This was eminently better than the flick knives favoured by the bad boys or juvenile delinquents. By the late fifties the anger was taken out of the first wave of the rock generation and conservative Tin Pan Alley again produced novelty records to the eager masses. "Tan shoes with pink shoe laces" was one such effort and many early rockers became enveloped into the silly season of pop. Suede shoes (ie Hush Puppies) become the preferred fashion of the university students with their duffle coats, commitment to the Campaign of Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and love for Trad Jazz. This thinking generation were the new moderns and forerunners of the Mods.

In the States the emergence of the "Preppy Cool Set", (over 25s) and their continental influenced Peppermint Lounge meant the venue for listening and dancing to music changed. Smaller venues with movement restriction necessitated popular dance took place standing in one spot. The deeply sexual coupling of rock'n’roll changed to one where there was now no body contact whatsoever. The Twist required shoes to be twisted, circular fashion, against the floor in a left and right manner, as if flattening a cigarette butt. This was combined with swinging the arms and hips as if an imaginary towel was drying the back. These gyrations were best viewed when the dancers wore tighter clothing showing off their long legs. Winkle pickers or needlepoint shoes replaced the cumbersome crepe soled shoes for men. The pointed toes were a reworking of the scandalous poulaines of the Middle Ages. These were outrageously phallic and distinctly male only to be worn during permissive times. The stiletto heel, which had been around since the early fifties, was given a new lease of life with the introduction of pantyhose and mini skirts. Courtship took place on the dance floor and ability 'swing right' was caught in many of the contemporary lyrics e.g. "Let's dance" by Chris Montez and "Twisting the Night Away" by Sam Cooke. By the time "Lets Twist Again" was released, Chubby Checker shot to popularity. Chubby wore two tone basket weave styled boots on stage and this became his show business trademark. The significance of the basket weave design was to keep the singer's feet cool, whilst demonstration the new dance.

Between the years 1960-63 Tin Pan Alley moguls kept cash registers filled by adhering to the tried and tested systems of previous decades. Stifling originality a return to tailored suits and patent leather shoes was the stage fashion as the beat generation metamorphosed into the new Mersey Beat. The new innovative pantihose meant women's hemlines became even shorter matching the length of men's jackets. Tight fitting bolero jackets (or bum freezers) were worn by men and two piece tailored outfits for women. During the early sixties the instrumental made a popular come back. The preferred instrument was the electric guitar and the music had a strong beat with an obvious percussion driving it. Foot tapping replaced hand jiving as the acceptable form of music appreciation as beat music and the transistor radio became more available. New instrumental groups began to spring up led initially by the Ventures in the US, and The Shadows in the UK. Techno-music made a brief appearance in the mono works of The Tornados celebrating the new space age with their international hit "Telstar". Sharp-toed shoes were worn as trendy slip-ons usually with high heels for women.

The Stomp was inspired by the actions of walking on hot sand. It became the official surfie dance of the 60s in Australia. To do the dance properly, dancers had to be barefoot. Away from the beach and dance floor, surfies wore dessert boots. Thongs, then were distinctly, uncool. To get boots ready for wearing, real surfies dragged them behind their woodies for a couple of miles. In California, the Beachboys wore sneakers, but of course, only one of them, was a real surfer. The sworn enemy of the Australian surfie was the sandkickers or boot wearing, Rockers. At every opportunity the two groups would have a blue (Australian slang for rumble). No surfing community (to speak of) in the UK, teenagers met at the seaside and fought, usually Moderns verses the Greasers. The infamous Mods and Rocker riots would come later.

When the Beatles arrived, they came wearing boots with Cuban heels. The inspiration had came from Brian Epstien who commissioned the Mayfair firm of ballet shoes makers, Anello and Davide to make the Fab Four, distinctive footwear. Beatle boots were high heeled, Chelsea Boots which instantly became vogue. Chisel toes soon relaced the sharp toe and for the price of one pound, local cobblers would oblige you by converting your peaks into the new chisel toe fashion. They just chopped off the end. A point of interest the Beatle Boot was less macho and resembled the style of boot favoured by Victorian ladies. Whilst not effeminate it was distinctly a softer less aggressive style than brothel creepers and winkle pickers. The boots often incorporated a French seem or central stitch running from ankle to toe on the upper. In the convention of symbols this referred to female genitalia rather the phallus of long toed or winklepicker shoes.

If the Beatles had the 'boy next door' image of the British Invasion then the Stones had to be different. For a short time the lads wore Clarke's dessert boots to counteract the Beatles leather, Chelsea boots. However anarchy ruled, and the scruffy London, five piece group appeared on stage wearing the clothes they wanted to wear (and not that of their management). No Saville Row suits for them (albeit Charlie Watts is reported to have houses full of them). The order of their day was casual and not necessarily smart. Something which did bind them together for a while was their footwear, because they all sported sneakers. Mick Jagger was such a devotee he even wore his Chucks (Chuck Taylor Converse All Star's) to his wedding with Bianca. Now there is dedication. The Stones epitomised the Chicago Blues revival and captured the music so well as to be acceptable to the blues greats and their many fans. There is a lovely irony however and that is many of the original blues greats would, even at the height of their creativity, be unable to afford a decent pair of shoes. Keith Richards on the other foot had his footwear wardrobe made to his personal lasts and these he orderd in bulk.

Tights and mini skirts meant female legs became the focus of attention with the sixties generation. The longer the leg the better and girl singing groups like The Shangri-las captured the sultry look perfectly by wearing slacks and high heeled ankle boots. The Vietnam War meant many conscripts were off shore and pin up images of sexy girls waiting at home were very much in vogue.

Jim Proby (AKA PJ Proby) will probably be best remembered for his trouser splitting performances in 1965. His sartorial style was inspired by the film of the season, 'Tom Jones', the Henry Fielding classic. Albert Finney played the lead role in this raunchy tale of a larrikin. Proby wore his hair in a bow and the tight pants and high heeled court shoes with silver buckles. Similar in style to those worn by the Sun King (Louis XIV). The style for Regency buckles on slip on shoes was short lived but not before a certain Welshman was quick to put it to good use. The singer's management (Gordon Mills) were equally as quick to drop the style, but keep the name, Tom Jones.

The nouveaux moderns (or mods), followed the black music of Motown and wore expensive designer clothing. As in Australia where the surfies hated the rockers, mods and rockers were sworn enemies and took every opportunity, according to the popular press, to terrorise English coastal towns by fighting on the beach. Mods wore lightweight dessert boots (Chukka Boots) top protect their ankles from the exhaust pipes of their Italian scooters. The Who became the Mod band and wore Italian made bowling shoes, which by coincidence are coming back into fashion. Roger Daltry was, for many, the definitive mod yet he was a self confesed Ted who allowed himself to be manipulated into the new fashion. Who said we won't get fooled again?

Sandie Shaw seldom appeared on stage in shoes and preferred to sing barefoot. A habit she shared with many young idealists now following the road to enlightenment and self discovery. Perhaps as a reaction to Vietnam and rejection of western materialism, Hippies symbolically went without shoes. Thongs, kaftans, bells, loons and Afghan coats were the uniform of the love generation. The cream of pop culture came together for three days of love, peace and music at Yasgor's Farm. Hippies and rockers united to show it could be done.

Towards the end of the sixties as music went underground (heavy metal) an alternative culture grew and listened to the music of Jamaican Ska. Blue beat suited the small clubs where the early ravers danced the night away. Robust footwear was the order of fashion and Doc Martin became the shoes to wear. Servicable yet fashionable the heavy duty boots were useful in a rumble and could be worn by either sex. Unisex was definately in fashion. The counter movement to Hippies brought first suede heads, then skin heads to the fore. These were urban bad boys and girls who were the remnants of the mods. Docs soon grew a bad reputation, with the eight eyelet 1460 DM, very much part of the 60s skinhead apparel.

By the seventies British Glam rock had arrived with larger than life groups parading on stage wearing platform shoes. The androgyny unisex style of the glam rockers popstars such as Bowie, Shirley and Elton John made them a firm fixture with men and women. The Face of 'The Faces', Rod Stewart, Scottish football fan extraordinaire, was a humble boot boy at Brentford Soccer Club long before he became gravel voiced lead singer. Rod, unlike his music chum, Elton John wore platform shoes on stage to look sexy. Tiny Elton on the other hand needed the extra leverage his boots gave him to reach the piano keys on his Steinway during live performances. The bands kept on coming with Bowie the Thin White Duke (AKA Ziggy Stardust) in high camp and platforms. Kiss, Sweet, Slade, the Double G and Skyhooks all tried to out tall each other. One exception in all this Glitterati was the Electric Warrior, Marc Bolan, who preferred to wear ballet pumps to emphasise his delicate frame. The most enduring performers to climb down from their giant platforms were Queen.

In ancient Greece actors wore raised shoes to tower over their audience and the resulting swaggering gait was understood to send females into sexual ecstasy. Platform shoes were first introduced in the Middle Ages and were worn by court ladies but the fashion was short lived and fell to the prerogative of the height challenged. Paul Gadd (or the Double G) was certainly the latter and used his glitter platforms to achieve the former. He was, in his heyday, an act to catch. His platforms were specially made for his feet and allowed him to achieve quite spectacular choreography during his live shows.

More sophisticated sounds meant nightclubs and lavish clothing. As always when you need to flaunt it is necessary to accentuate the leg and platform boots and shoes were worn to outlandish lengths. During the seventies Abba , from Sweden, became the toast of the Disco. Eagerly followed and lavishly copied the outlandish costumes soon became the focus of cross dressers. Probably most people will associate the platform boot with Swedish supergroup Abba but of course the style has become an evergreen principally through, drag sartoria. A firm favourite of female impersonators and cross dressers, the longevity of the glam platform is in no short measure due to many Australian drag artists influenced by Abba. Platform sneakers made a re-appearance in early 1990s, when ravers wore them with layers of rubber (or PVC) decorated with logos or insignia.

By the mid seventies the kids from the suburbs rejected the sophistication of studio music preferring instead to peruse an alternative life style which meant back to basic rock. The new rockers were punk and wore clothes more suited to bondage. Unemployment prevailed and Thatcher's no future generation took to wear heavy-duty industrial style boots. The once ultra conservative, Dr Martens shoes became the trademark of urban youth excited by violence. Dr Klause Martens of Munich invented his air condition soles in 1945. The inspiration came from a personal injury he experienced when skiing and wanted to wear a comfortable shoe. He started to produce the air sole in 1947 but its popularity took until 1960 to peak. As in the 60s the DM became the uniform of youth harnessing the aggression of the storm trooper into the macho urban dwellers of punk to shatter the complacency of the bourgeoisie. Punks and Skinheads were not the first to do this and in the seventeenth century young men called 'footpads' terrorised the highways and byways. Soon DM's were readily adopted by all and became a youth phenomenon. Many psychologists believe the aggressive boot presented the ultimate paradox of style especially when worn by women and gay men the shoes at one level projected a macho aggressiveness, which belied the real feelings of the wearer. This was perhaps indicative of the confusion of roles and the blurring of distinctions within contemporary society.

A quiet revolution in the shoe fashion industry did take place in the late Seventies and was ironically brought about because teenagers had rejected the sophisticated sounds of the studio. The mothers of the teenagers found a new outlet for music and thanks to exercise innovators, such as Jane Fonda, a new aerobic revolution began. Out went the old sweatshirts and daks and in came designer Ath Fashion including seventies, sheek trainers or sport shoes. In the 1970 informality became intertwined with the cult of health which had a marked effect on footwear. Keeping fit set in motion a movement which affected all ages being fit and trim this meant looking and feeling good all of which could be simply associated with a new sartorial awareness. Shoes needed to match the outfit and a hungry market was created. To keep demand high, the giants like Adders, Puma and Nikka produced what were virtually fashion ranges. Each season brought new design modifications, colour combinations and logos, most of which were sales promotion ruses and had little to do with improving the efficiency of the shoe for exercise. The fad for keeping fit passed but the trainer market was established. The young enjoyed the exclusive, designer element and older people found the broad based cushioned footwear comfortable fit. Costs were cheaper than traditional footwear and fashion accompaniment such as tracksuits became popular with young and old alike. Celebrity endorsement and support from medical experts has also enhanced the trainer in its various guises. Marketing was targeted firmly towards inner city youth, mainly Afro-American, Hispanic or Asian. The shelf live of designer trainers is very short and rarely lasts more than three months. Anything the youth market deems passe, dies quickly.

The sport shoe took a major step forward when in the seventies and eighties, designer sport shoes became available. Sport's crossover, particularly from baseball, had always been popular with youth but now expensive footwear became the ubiquitous outward trapping of coolness. This was especially true in inner city ethnic populations. No street kid could be seen in anything other than the latest fashion. Prices of quality footwear rose to meet the expectation yet most kids wearing latest fashion had no visible means of income. The drug shoes for the drug culture were born. A combination of clever marketing and the desire to rebel against conservatism has assured the sneaker culture endured. Hip Hop Rappers and sports personalities extolled the virtues of being cool in them and peer pressure ensured parents parted with enormous amounts of money to get the latest styles. Truly space age shoes these ath footwear were definitely the new age shoe and incorporated many man made polymers which were not of the natural world. Trainers were often referred to as 'drug shoes' or 'Chronics'. Research indicates many drug pushers were paid with new sneakers. 'Chronic" is a slang term for a drug user and is used synonymously with 'hemp' which in street talk mean trainer. Some companies were accused of cashing in on the easy drug money picked up by inner city kids. This included using street slang as names for their wears. Some manufacturers tried to quell negative publicity by putting some of their profits back into developing inner city recreational area. Many multi-nationals were also been accused of mass producing their footwear in sweatshops, using developing countries and employing cheap labour. The term 'gang sneaker' refers to become their trademark. In Chicago for example, gang members wear 'Chucks' with the blue star changed to a different colour. In Los Angeles gangs wear Nike Cortex, whereas gangs in Wisconsin wear either red or black laces in their black sneakers. In the 1980s the sneaker became associated with the hip hop culture and break-dancers proudly were seen sporting suede topped trainers. This reached its zenith in 1987 when Run-DMC recorded My Adidas. Now it is commonplace for shoe companies to endorse recording artists to wear their footwear on stage, such is the influence they have with the buying public.

Despite an economic global down turn, the importance to look cool continued and when the English Soccer Youths savoured the Continental styles during their frequent forages to follow their national Soccer team, they soon discovered Italian designer's shoes and trainers which were proudly worn as a badge of office. The fashion caught on and no self respecting Casual of the eighties would be seen in public, unless they were wearing expensive designer footwear. Many of these kids had no visible means of income and hence association was made with criminal activities including illicit drug trafficking.

Like no other part of costume, the shoe (or its absence) remains evergreen in the minds of our youth. The cycle of fashion does have a logic however which follows a simple pattern that whatever comes next will be so different from its predecessor, as to make it obvious. Close inspection of some of the more outlandish styles also reveal a pragmatic attempt to deal with some of the practicalities of being young and doing things that kids do. So the cycle continues, always, it has to be said in tandem with the full support of the fashion industries and shoe manufacturers keen to capture the lucrative market of teenagers and below. The fastest shoes in the world today belong to skate boarders. These are the ultra cool footwear of the 21 st century. The four wheel drive footwear represent the accumulated knowledge of shoe design since the beginning of time with the new technologies of polymer chemistry. A real product of alchemy, these are truely out of this world. The humble Californian beach shoe (worn by the Beachboys) has now metamorphosed into today's sophicstcated shoes which are sported by the poperati including All Saints, Blur, Jamiroquai and the Prodigy.

Next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways
It's still rock and roll to me."

Bessemer S (ed) 1998 Trainers London: Kyle Cathie Ltd
Cassin Scott J 1994 The illustrated encyclopaedia of costume & fashion London:Studio Vista
Cockington J 2001 Long way to the top Sydney: ABC Books
Pattison A Cawthorne N 1997 A century of shoes NSW: Universal International
Panati C 1991 Panati's parade of fads, follies and manias NY: Harper Perennial
Sims J 1999 Rock/fashion London: Omnibus Press
Takamura Z Roots of street style Tokyo: Graphic-sha Publishing Co.
Vanderbilt T Anatomy of an industry and an icon New York: The New Press

Reviewed 19/05/2021

1 comment:

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