In my quest to discover whether Korea’s culture and its rabid pursuit of education at any costs geared toward the national suneung, or College Scholastic Aptitude Test, could change, I journeyed to the Def Dance Skool my first day in Seoul.

Def Dance is like a hagwon but for hip-hop and contemporary pop music. Offering classes in dance, singing, rap, recording, and some instruments, it had been featured in the New York Times a few months back, which is how I had heard of it.

It’s hard to walk in and not smile. While observing an introductory dance class, my head started bobbing and my foot tapping. The music was thumping; the rhythm was contagious. And the instruction for the seven students in the class we observed was terrific. The instructor didn’t just demonstrate a routine and let students dance through the whole thing. The students worked for several minutes on one move at a time and learned the basics of hip-hop dance before they started performing some moves in sequence. The instructor demonstrated one move where students moved their head backward and forward, for example. Then, as the music played and the students practiced over and over, he walked around to make sure everyone was doing it properly by moving just the head and not the back and insuring the chin was going forward enough.

It’s also hard to walk in and believe that an earlier generation of parents would have allowed their children to attend a hagwon of this type not focused on math or English and that Korean society and culture are not changing at all.

Students of all ages attend Def Dance, from as little as age 3 to adults. Founded in 2002, after a slow start, it has grown to three locations. At the center we visited, there are six dance classes a day on two floors, and six vocal classes as well in addition to private lessons. After 5 or 6 p.m., the center becomes busy, and a single class will often have as many as 30 students. Although the New York Times wrote about how students attend Def Dance in the hopes of becoming a K-Pop star, according to the founder and CEO of Def Dance Skool, Yang Sun Kyu, his primary focus is not on training entertainers, but allowing any ordinary person to be more connected to hip-hop and contemporary pop music.

Michael B. Horn and Yang Sun Kyu, founder and CEO of Def Dance Skool. Photo by Tracy Kim Horn
Michael B. Horn and Yang Sun Kyu, founder and CEO of Def Dance Skool. Photo by Tracy Kim Horn

In the last three to four years, according to a manager who took us around Def Dance, the school has attracted more and more hobbyists. Perhaps half of the students who attend are trying to do so for professional reasons, she said. Many elementary and middle school parents she said send their children to Def Dance to help build their confidence.

Although many students still attend traditional hagwons as well, for children it seems, Def Dance can be part of a more balanced, wholesome, and perhaps happier education.

The price is comparable to a traditional hagwon. Attending 2 times per week costs roughly $100; 3 times a week $130; and Monday through Friday would be $240 per week. Classes are a month long.

Yang said that when he started the school, he didn’t expect it become so big. There were only three hagwons like this in the whole country, his being the first focused on hip-hop. But his timing was good, and it’s not just his school that’s grown.

In the past there were schools for ballet and jazz, but Yang said that this trend is bigger. According to the New York Times, there are thousands of these schools now. Specialist schools are also now opening that focus on just singing or dance.

The key, Yang said, is that more people in Korean society have showed that there are other ways to be successful other than through studying math, engineering, and going the traditional university pathway.

According to the New York Times article, a survey by the Korea Institute for Vocational Education and Training showed that “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.’”

As the manager at Def Dance said, 10 years ago this would have been unimaginable. But the generation of parents has changed since then. The older generation thought that dance wouldn’t get you anywhere, but the newer does not think like that.

Although most accounts of Korean education chronicle and bemoan the mix of public and after-school private education that most Korean students still experience, for at least a small but growing slice of the population, things may be changing. That may prove significant. It’s certainly worth watching. Transformation rarely happens over night.

The vibe at Def Dance Skool was so much fun that I couldn't help but lay down a beat at a drum set even with my rudimentary skills. Photo by Tracy Kim Horn
The vibe at Def Dance Skool was so much fun that I couldn’t help but lay down a beat at a drum set even with my rudimentary skills. Photo by Tracy Kim Horn


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.