When “Gangnam Style” debuted six years ago, fans around the world imitated Psy’s iconic dance style. In the U.S., music lovers tried to sing along, even if they couldn’t understand the Korean lyrics. Now, American K-pop fans are finding more ways to emulate their idols.
In Washington, D.C., an annual K-pop Academy lets students train with Korean vocal instructors and choreographers to sing and dance like their favorite stars.
“I’ve always wondered what it was like to be a K-pop idol,” said Ocie Grimsley, a participant in this year’s K-pop Academy. “Now I kind of get to get a little taste of what it’s like.”
Any hard-core K-pop fan knows that being an “idol” isn’t easy. Many famous K-pop stars are recruited by entertainment companies as children. For years, the trainees perfect dance moves and learn how to sing. Then, they are assembled into idol groups that fans know and love.
Taught by coaches who work with idols back in Korea, the four-week K-pop Academy is the closest thing to the booming industry that most American fans will get.
Korean pop culture has been making waves in the U.S. for a long time. In fact, Koreans actually call the popularity of their pop culture abroad “hallyu,” or the Korean wave. From Korean dramas popping up on Netflix to the skincare and makeup products dominating the cosmetic industry, and even Korean barbeque restaurants, Korean culture is everywhere. At the center is K-pop, or Korean pop music.
With its addicting melodies and complicated choreographies, K-pop has become a global phenomenon. In December 2012, “Gangnam Style” became the first YouTube video to surpass one billion views. When Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” set a record for the most views in 24 hours, the Korean boy group BTS beat her one year later with their single, “Idol.”
These idol groups aren’t just dominating the entertainment industry. Recently, BTS graced the international cover of TIME, as a part of the magazine’s annual list of “Next Generation Leaders.” BTS shared their title with athletes, activists and actors.
Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism started K-pop Academy in hopes of channeling that passion for K-pop into a love of South Korea more broadly. The ministry has opened 32 Korean Cultural Centers in 27 countries, including one in D.C.
“The K-pop industry is getting bigger worldwide,” said the D.C. Korean Cultural Center production manager, Hungu Lee. “We made it to enjoy K-pop well and understand it deeply.”
Although the K-pop Academy instructors speak little to no English, participants don’t have to speak Korean. The language barrier didn’t stop the program from recruiting a diverse group. Participants ranged from high school and college students to working professionals. While some lived and worked in D.C., others commuted every day from the suburbs of Maryland or Virginia. A few participants even grew up in other countries.
“K-pop to me goes beyond the boundary of language,” said Katie, an intermediate students who did not give her last name.
Many of the participants had backgrounds in dance and music. Others wanted to work in the industry someday. But even more had no experience performing and just wanted to experience the K-pop community on a deeper level.
Regardless of their reasons, each of the participants were hooked by K-pop’s allure.
“K-pop is love. K-pop is life. Basically, K-pop is everything imaginable,” said Trevon Quander, another participant in the program.
Even more important than the skills learned during the program were the friendships formed. Many participants cried during the final event, a showcase at the Korean Embassy during which they performed the songs and dances they worked on.
“K-pop brings people into a community. We’re all a huge family,” Raven Knight said. “You can meet somebody that says they’re into K-pop that’s a complete stranger to you and you can start talking about your favorite groups, start hitting it off and become friends.”