Kim Chae-young attends cram school five evenings a week, toiling deep into the night. But unlike most young South Koreans who spend hours at special schools to polish their English and maths, she studies slide steps and bubbly lyrics.
"I want to become a K-pop icon, one like Psy," says Chae-young, 13, referring to the South Korean rapper of the viral video Gangnam Style. "All these hours I spend here are an investment in that dream."
For the past four years, she has practised her hip hop moves at the Def Dance Skool in Seoul, which is just one such school among thousands in South Korea. Even though there is no official tally on the number of schools teaching children and teenagers to become pop entertainers, industry officials all agree that it is on the rise. Even traditional private music and dance schools - more accustomed to teaching Bach and ballet - have switched their curriculums to get with the pop plan.
They are responding to a growing demand. In a survey by the Korea Institute for Vocational Education and Training late last year, entertainers, along with teachers and doctors, were the most popular choices for future jobs among primary, middle and high school students - a far cry from a more traditional era, when entertainment was considered an inferior profession and its practitioners belittled with the derogatory nickname tantara.
Now, in college, pop music is one of the most coveted majors, where it's "practical music".
"Eleven years ago, when I first started this school, parents thought only teenage delinquents came here," says Yang Sun-kyu, head of Def Dance Skool, in the Gangnam district. "Parents' attitudes have changed."
That's because, in large part, career choices have expanded for their children. Golfer Pak Se-ri has dominated on the LPGA tour, and figure skater Kim Yu-na won an Olympic gold medal. Then along came Park Jae-sang, otherwise known as Psy, with his lasso-swirling, clip-clopping Gangnam Style dance steps and lyrics that poked fun at South Korea's rigid social structure.
On a recent evening, Chae-young and other sweating teenagers bobbed and stomped, practising their hip hop moves in front of wall mirrors, as instructors clapped and shouted. Later, in an upstairs recording room, she practised Adele's Rolling in the Deep, over and over, as her teacher gently admonished her.
With the motto "cultivating the next generation of K-pop artists", the Def Dance Skool trains 1,000 students, up from about 400 in 2006. Fees vary but usually run to about US$135 a month for two or three evenings a week. That's about the same price that some traditional cram schools, known as hagwon, charge for their academic programmes.
Almost half of the students at Def Dance Skool are trying to break into one of South Korea's top K-pop agencies, which recruit and train young talent to put them into girl or boy bands.
Some of these South Korean "idol groups", including Girls' Generation, Super Junior and Big Bang, produce music videos that generate millions of views on YouTube. Fans from across Asia and elsewhere make pilgrimages to the country to attend their album releases, concerts and awards ceremonies, or just to stroll around the Gangnam district, renowned for its pricey bars, chic boutiques and plastic surgery clinics.
Revenue from K-pop has climbed. The combined sales of South Korea's top three K-pop agencies - SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment - soared to 362.9 billion won (about US$324 million) last year, from 106.6 billion won in 2009, with most of that growth coming from overseas.
K-pop stars frequently are the faces for South Korean brands in television commercials, and Psy fronts for a range of products, from Hite beer and Samsung refrigerators to a line of cosmetics for men called Man's Balm.
"In my days, studying hard was everything, but now we see there are other options for our children," says Lee Byeong-hwa, a 48-year-old homemaker whose 11-year-old daughter, Kim En-jae, dreams of a career as a K-pop star.
On a recent day, Lee and En-jae sat with thousands of people at an indoor stadium in Incheon, west of Seoul. Nearly all of them were in their teens or 20s, and each was wearing a number.
They were among two million contestants vying to appear on Season 5 of Superstar K, the country's answer to American Idol. Besides South Korea, auditions were held in the United States and Canada. It's one of several K-pop star-spotting television shows that have become magnets for would-be performers like En-jae.
Hugging a guitar, En-jae watched intently as applicants lined up in front of 25 white rectangular tents on the stadium floor. Eventually, the group was pared to just 100 individual and group acts for the three-month Superstar K competition. The weekly broadcast on the Mnet cable channel began earlier this month.
For Woo Ji-won, an 18-year-old high school senior, it's her third year in a row trying to pass the audition. "My classmates are cramming for college entrance exams," she says. "But I go to a K-pop school seven evenings a week. After coming home past 10, I study K-pop videos on YouTube for hours."
K-pop critics contend that South Korea is producing cookie-cutter performances: perfectly synchronised dances, catchy songs and outfits, and chiselled but forgettable features, often the product of the plastic surgery clinics in the Gangnam district. Psy, they argue, is an anomaly.
Hong Dae-kwang, who ranked No4 at the Superstar K tournament last year, shared those reservations. "They all sing, dance and perform well, like well-made machines," he says.
Still, Hong, 28, acknowledged that the K-pop boom helped to change his life. Before he starred in the competition, he shared a cheap one-room apartment with a friend and was delivering pizza and performing on the streets for a living. Now, he is a regular guest on a local radio show, lives in a three-room apartment, and has his own agent.
"K-pop opened the door of opportunities for people like me," says Hong, whose debut album briefly topped digital song downloads in South Korea in April.
The New York Times