Seoul, South Korea (CNN)The teenagers drop down on their stomachs, slap the floor with their hands and rise with a gracious twirl. They then proceed to flap their arms like a flock of birds to the beat of a K-pop song.
There are at least 50 of them, crowded into a low-ceilinged room with mirrors on three walls. It is hot, it is sweaty and it is 9.30 p.m. on a Wednesday night.
The group, who have been practicing the same move repeatedly for nearly two hours straight, are all students of Def Dance, an elite dancing and singing school in Seoul’s upscale Gangnam neighborhood.
“I spend about three hours here every day after school,” says Lee Jae-Gi, a skinny 16-year-old wearing a gray sweatshirt. I started taking classes when I was 11.”
He studies K-pop, hip-hop and singing. “Practicing the same move over and over again can be tiring but I am progressing and that is all I care about,” he adds.
The teenagers enrolled in Def Dance are all single-mindedly pursuing the same aim: to become a K-pop idol. Becoming one of the chosen few guarantees fame, success and a bank balance that sets them up for life.
But the school, which charges $200 per month and has 1,400 students, some as young as eight, is only the first rung on the ladder to fame.
To become a true idol, teenagers like Lee must first make it through ultra-competitive auditions held by the record labels. Those who are chosen become “trainees.” They will be expected to give up their freedom to live and train for several years at one of Korea’s elite K-pop academies. Only then will they get a shot at stardom.
There are dozens of schools helping to prep kids for these auditions across Seoul, each charging anything up to $1,000 per semester.
Life as a trainee
Three record labels dominate the K-pop industry, which generated $4.7 billion dollars in 2016, SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment and YG Entertainment. All were formed in the late 1990s, when K-pop first started to take off.
Their trainee selection process is incredibly competitive. “We hold 500,000 auditions a year,” explains Choi Jinyoung, who is setting up a new academy for SM Entertainment. “Less than 10 people get chosen every year to become trainees.”
Personality and a “good character,” which means being hard-working and disciplined, are the key elements recruiters look for.