Since 2017, dancers from across Michigan have made hours-long journeys multiple times each week to converge in Okemos to hone their skills and talents under the direction of Glenn Douglas Packard at the INstitute of Dancers. Packard uses his extensive experience and acumen to mentor young talent in taking that next step forward in entertainment.
“I’m that door. I can open it, but they have to dance through it,” Packard said.
Known in the industry as the “dream maker” and “dancing entrepreneur,” Packard spent 30-plus years in the entertainment world, where he rose to dizzying heights by using his earned experience to expand his career from dancer to choreographer to creative director to director to producer and even to reality-TV star on the VH1 series “Brooke Knows Best.” He has worked around the globe on the biggest stages and with the brightest stars such as Pink, Usher, Britney Spears, Whitney Houston, Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony. Packard’s work on the “Michael Jackson: 30th Anniversary Celebration” in 2001 earned him an Emmy Award nomination for outstanding choreography in television.
Yet Packard’s heroic rise was born out of humble roots. His family moved from Detroit to Clare when he was a child so his father could pursue his own dream of becoming a farmer.
“I was milking cows. I didn’t have any connection to the entertainment industry at all,” Packard said. “I learned my work ethic being a farmer. When someone complains that things are too hard, I always think back to my days of farming. That’s hard work.”
Packard was planning to enter the family business and was studying dairy management at Michigan State University when tragedy changed his trajectory. An accident on a four-wheeler at age 18 shattered Packard’s leg. The initial diagnosis was that amputation would be necessary at the knee. Surgeons managed to save the leg but doubted Packard would be able to ever walk normally again.
“As I was laying in the hospital during my rehabilitation, I had a lot of conversations with God,” he said. “You know how it was ‘Run, Forrest, run’ in ‘Forrest Gump’? For me it was ‘Dance, Glenn, dance.’ I always wanted to be a dancer and an entertainer. As soon as was able to walk again and get my walk back to normal, I stepped into my first dance class at age 21. The rest is history. I just didn’t stop. Dance, Glenn, dance.”
His parents were initially less than enthusiastic about his career change; but just as his father decided to follow his dream of farming, Packard was determined to pursue his own dream too.
“My parents were not supportive at first, and it took them about 10 years to come around and realize this was going to be a career of mine,” Packard said. “I told my dad at one point that he was the one who was my mentor. … His small little farm turned into a multimillion-dollar farming enterprise. Now my father is probably my biggest fan. You’re not going to go to their house without him turning on YouTube or some sort of video of mine. And you’re going to be watching it for hours.”
Packard earned a scholarship to the Alvin Ailey School of Dance in New York City. Despite their reservations, his parents piled into the family pickup, drove their son to the Big Apple and dropped Packard off with his suitcases on a street corner as a stranger in a strange land.
“I didn’t know a single person in New York City. … When I got there, no one knew my name. But when I left, I made sure everyone knew my name in the dance industry,” he said.
“I spent the next 30-something years in the entertainment business in the biggest cities doing some of the most amazing shows on the planet — living in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami,” Packard continued. “But there was always something missing in my life, and that was the lifestyle and the people of the Midwest and in Michigan. I had finally got to the point where I was turning 50, my parents were in their 70s. I was at a place in my career where I was between projects, and I wanted to go home to my roots and be near my family.”
Packard said he founded the INstitute of Dancers to create what an American dance company should look like in 2021. The company is passionate about all styles of dance — from ballet and hip-hop to reggaeton and heels — and prides itself on being equally diverse in its members.
“We have LGBTQ and straight company members. We accept all shapes and sizes. We don’t age discriminate. If you’re 13 or 30-something, we’re here to help and get your entertainment career started,” he said. “I take all of my experiences and give these young dancers the right tools and knowledge and opportunities to succeed. Some of my young company members are turning 18 right now, and they’re already booking awards shows and music videos and films and commercials. And they’re just starting their careers. I was 18 and still farming and dancing in front of cows.”
Still, it’s his past — perhaps in particular that accident at age 18 — that provided Packard with the drive and determination to live his life to the fullest.
“Don’t wait for something bad to happen to change your life. I try to teach that to all my company members,” he said. “I am so appreciative to have my legs. Every day I wake up happy. I go to bed happy. I tell people that it’s because I am doing what I love. I found what I was meant to do in life. That’s the big secret, and I tell that to my students all the time. You need to do what you love in life to be happy. You need to live the life you imagine for yourself.”