Growing up in West Philadelphia, the little girl with golden curls learned folk and modern dance from her mother and older women in the neighborhood.
In elementary school, her teacher encouraged the lefthanded youngster to write with her right hand. She refused. So the teacher told her to dance in the gym during cursive-writing lessons.
"My mother never learned to write cursive," son Ira said, "but she learned to dance." And dance she did.
After graduating from West Philadelphia High School, Mrs. Packman earned a bachelor's degree in education in 1941 from Temple University.
"I had no intention of becoming a teacher, but the only scholarship I got was in education, and I needed that scholarship," she said in a 1993 Inquirer article. "If I had had my druthers, I would have gone to New York and studied with Martha Graham."
Instead, she began teaching elementary school in 1941, when there was no dance education in public schools. She married Ralph Packman in 1942 and raised two children in Northwest Philadelphia.
She built dancing into her curriculum and taught creative movement to first and second graders. "It was not enough for kids to improvise," Mrs. Packman said in 1993. "I wanted them to develop a love of dance, and for that they had to learn basic concepts."
Mrs. Packman saw dance in early-childhood education not as a technical skill but as a social activity. "In the arts, you share yourself. You show how to feel," she said, "and you learn that it's good for people to express their emotions."
In the mid-1940s, Mrs. Packman recognized a great talent in first grader Ronne Arnold. While helping launch his career as a professional dancer, she began to work with one of the pioneers of modern dance, Nadia Chilkovsky Nahumck, who founded the Philadelphia Dance Academy and became a lifelong friend.
"Jeri was my life's inspiration, love and drive," Arnold wrote Friday in an e-mail from Australia.
In the 1950s and '60s, Arnold toured worldwide in the role of Luis, a member of the Sharks gang in West Side Story, before moving to Australia to teach dance. "I am dedicating my next dance work, Some Other Place, for my students at Wesley College of the Arts [Australia] in memory of Jeri," he said.
In 1965, the Philadelphia School District asked Mrs. Packman to join the newly created Head Start program. She later became a demonstration teacher for 2- and 3-year-olds in Get Set, and, until she retired from the district in 1981, she taught teachers how to teach dance in early-childhood programs.
Mrs. Packman also taught dance at the Allens Lane Art Center from 1953-75, and was director of the extension division of the Philadelphia Dance Academy from 1956-69. When it became the dance division of the Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts, she taught students who were studying to be teachers how to integrate creative dance in education.
Mrs. Packman began teaching dance at the Community College of Philadelphia in 1982, a position she held until shortly before she died.
"Jeri's knowledge of dance was incredible," said Joan Myers Brown, founder of Philadanco. "She actually had three careers and never retired from teaching and dancing. She was on the Philadanco board of directors until her death. She will be terribly missed."
Mrs. Packman hardly ever stopped moving. She was the first and last one dancing at weddings, galas and parties.
"Nana Jeri swam miles each day on vacation in Beach Haven," granddaughter Nora Peterman said. "We celebrated her 80th birthday at the Tropicana, and she got us on stage to dance in a Grease contest. And she won."
Mrs. Packman was cochairman of dance at the Philadelphia Art Alliance and an adviser for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. She was on the board of the Please Touch Museum and Temple's dance-certification project, funded by the William Penn Foundation.
In 2004, Mrs. Packman received the Terri Lynne Lokoff Child Care Foundation Child Care Advocate Award and, in 2006, was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Pennsylvania Child Care Association.
In addition to her daughter, son and granddaughter, Mrs. Packman is survived by five additional grandchildren and a sister. Her husband died in 1997.
A funeral service will be held at 3 p.m. today at Goldsteins' Rosenberg's Raphael-Sacks Memorial Chapel, 6410 N. Broad St.
Memorial donations may be sent to the Early Childhood Development Department, Community College of Philadelphia, 1700 Spring Garden St., Philadelphia 19103.
Contact staff writer Gayle Ronan Sims at 215-854-4185 or gsims@phillynews.