Tuesday, July 30, 2002 | 8:24 a.m.
Peggy Ryan shuffled rhythmically in the center of her dance studio on East Sahara Avenue.
"It's jump, slide, jump, slide, back-turn," the 77-year-old instructor said to a cluster of students standing behind her.
The second-floor room was a little stuffy and foreheads were glistening. But the dancers knew that if they blinked, they'd miss half the routine the 5-foot-1-inch tall Ryan (a Las Vegan since 1981) was bustling through.
"When she gets on a roll we're in deep trouble," dancer Teresa Cushman said with a laugh. "We worry a lot on the way home. We wonder, Was that a slap (on the hip) or a shuffle?'"
At this stage in her life, one might think that Ryan would retire soon. She has been working since she was 3 years old. With a characteristic smile, Ryan will tell you her life has been one long dance number.
Ryan has appeared in nearly 60 movies. She's tapped, twirled and sang on such early television shows as Sid Caesar's "Show of Shows" and "The Milton Berle Show."
She also spent seven years playing the part of Jenny Sherman on "Hawaii Five-0."
But she's probably remembered most as the dark-haired teenage darling who played opposite Donald O'Connor in Hollywood musicals of the 1940s.
As Ryan said from the comfort of her director's chair that spells her name in sequined letters: "I keep retiring."
But she keeps returning to her first love.
Today Ryan teaches dance to women in their 50s, 60s and 70s, and the hoofer shows no sign of slowing down.
"I have two very good male friends," Ryan said. "St. Jude and Ben Gay. St. Jude keeps me sane. Ben Gay keeps me moving."
Ryan oversees more than 60 dance students who form the dance groups the TNT's, Ryan's Rebels, Peg's Legs, Ryan's Hopes and Ryan's Gals.
Her studio is an assemblage of her life's work. Framed old movie posters that feature a fresh-faced Ryan and her Hollywood co-stars line the walls. A collection of cassette tapes are piled on the stereo in the corner.
Hanging on a back wall is a black-and-white quilt that was given to Ryan on her 75th birthday. Autographed by her fans and students, the scribbled messages are a testament to Ryan's teaching legacy.
"Thanks for making our dreams come true," reads one. "You are our hero," reads another."
All about the girls
Nearly all of her dancers are women who wanted to dance earlier in their lives but were devoted to careers and families.
As members of Ryan's entourage, they perform at least twice a year in full costume, dancing to old show tunes or the sounds of Shirley MacLaine and Frank Sinatra.
"They've become a family," Ryan said.
"I showed 'em how to put on false eyelashes and high cuts," Ryan said. "I said, 'Smile big, finish good and stick your boobs out.'
"I teach attitude. I teach presence and feeling good about yourself ... When they walk in the door, I say, 'You forget about what happened out there.' "
Every October, Ryan brings the TNT's to Los Angeles to perform at an annual reunion of Ryan's old friends, who include Margaret O'Brien, June Allyson, Mickey Rooney and Donald O'Connor.
"She has made our lives a whole 'nother ballgame," Dottie Ward, a dancer with the group Ryan's Rebels, said before a recent rehearsal. "It's something we never had in our lives before."
Ward, who during her younger years watched Ryan in the movies, said that when she first heard Ryan was teaching classes, she couldn't get to the studio fast enough.
"I couldn't believe it," Ward said. "She out-danced them all."
Even today, Jackie McDanile, a 63-year-old dancer with the TNT's, said, "When she goes onstage, that spotlight goes on, she just glows."
Tap, tap, tap
Ryan was born in Long Beach, Calif., in 1924 to parents who were ballroom dancers, but had never danced professionally.
At age 2, her mother placed her in dance lessons.
Ryan's father worked as a superintendent at a hotel in San Diego and her mother checked hats to pay for Ryan's lessons.
"My mom always said, 'You're going to be somebody,' " Ryan said. "She started me young and kept at it."
By age 5 Ryan's mother had taken her to Hollywood, where Ryan appeared in 15- to 20-minute movie shorts. When they ran out of money the two headed back to San Diego, only to return to Hollywood five years later with the financial backing of someone who knew Ryan's talents.
Back in Hollywood she was enrolled in Hollywood Professional School, and at age 10 appeared in her first movie musical, "Top of the Town."
A few years later Ryan went to New York to dance in the musical revue "Meet the People." When she returned to Los Angeles at age 16, she was paired with O'Connor.
"I didn't want to dance with him at all," Ryan said. "He wasn't the best dancer. He'll tell you."
But their dancing caught the eyes of the producers and the two went on to star in 14 movies together.
Later, Ryan teamed with husband Ray McDonald and performed at such venues as the London Palladium. The duo also visited Las Vegas during the 1950s where they performed at Hotel El Rancho Las Vegas and the Thunderbird hotel.
In 1958 Ryan retired with her family to Hawaii, only to end up teaching dance and spending seven years on "Hawaii Five-0."
Ryan moved to Las Vegas in 1981 to be close to her parents. Her legend as a dance teacher began shortly after.
To keep in shape Ryan began practicing tap on the racquetball courts of the Sporting House on South Industrial Road.
Eventually, women working out at the club would peek their heads in and ask Ryan what she was doing.
Before long Ryan was teaching them tap. Eventually that same group of women would form into the dance troupe the TNT's. Other groups would follow.
"We told her she couldn't quit," Cushman said. "She has to keep teaching until we're her age. So there's no way she can get away from it."
Counting up the years, that would make Ryan about 120 when she retires, which Ryan believes won't be a problem.
Stretching out her arms, Ryan, who compares her life to that of a Broadway show broken down into acts, explained with the same exuberance she carries on stage, "This is my big finale."
With a laugh, she added, "My tombstone will say, 'Tapped out.' "