NEW YORK, Nov. 13--Ricky Martin is teaching me how to dance. The pop star is sitting on a sofa in his Manhattan hotel room, explaining how couples sway to salsa music in his native Puerto Rico. "You hold your partner," he says, raising and curving his arms to demonstrate. "Then she goes around you"--his fingers make spiraling motions and his hips move ever so slightly off the couch--"and around you. And at the end, she's in your arms."

Martin sits up straight. "That's what I am," he says. "My culture is sensual. I'm not forcing it--it's just something that flows, you know?" We know. After all, Martin's sex appeal played a key role in establishing the 28-year-old singer at the forefront of a generation of Latino and Latina artists who have appealed to Anglo audiences by fusing Latin rhythms and textures with elements of rock, pop, and R&B.

Martin's 1999 self-titled English-language debut has sold 15 million copies worldwide--almost half of that coming in the USA. And bouncy hit singles such as "Livin' la Vida Loca" and "The Cup of Life," supported by Martin's hot-blooded videos and electrifying live appearances, have made the Menudo alumnus a household name.

With the CD "Sound Loaded" arriving in stores Tuesday, is Martin facing pressure to match or exceed that success? "Yes," he responds without hesitation. "But I'm very satisfied with my new album. I mean, I want to be humble, but I don't think we're going to sell 15 million this time."

Martin pauses, then suddenly lunges forward and raises his voice markedly. "We're gonna sell 20 million!"

He laughs. "I don't know. But you have to be optimistic." The early signs are indeed positive. The album's driving first single, "She Bangs," has been embraced by a variety of commercial radio formats since its debut in September.

"Certainly, 'She Bangs' got as good a reception as people could have hoped for," says Sean Ross, editor of radio magazine Airplay Monitor . "Many had felt that Ricky had already run his course, but it's clear that there's still a lot of excitement about him."

The video for "She Bangs" also has made waves--literally. Martin learned to scuba-dive and sing underwater ("without blowing bubbles," he notes) to shoot the aquatic extravaganza, set on and off the shore of Paradise Island's Atlantis Hotel and featuring a bevy of nubile babes.

Amy Doyle, director of music and talent at MTV, calls the video "a great jolt of electricity," and her viewers agree: "She Bangs" has been among the most requested videos on MTV's "Total Request Live" since its premiere. "He appeals to a broad part of our audience--especially females," Doyle says.

VH1's audience has been similarly impressed; viewers who have logged on to VH1.com have made Martin a three-time nominee for the My VH1 Music Awards, airing November 30. He is, not surprisingly, leading in the "Booty Shake" category.

Martin is keen, however, that he be recognized as more than just a pretty booty. "I've had two years since 'Livin' la Vida Loca' to grow, to exchange ideas, and I think this album reflects that," he says. "I worked with different producers, and they all come from different backgrounds. It wasn't a science project, though. It was all about emotions--about knowing where I am, emotionally and spiritually, and trusting in that."

Spirituality is an important theme for Martin. His speech is littered with New Agey terms and phrases--"circle of energy," "creating a perfect planet"--and he makes a practice of studying different religions and cultures. "Before I go to a country, I spend a week reading up on its history," he says. "If I'm going to India, I'll read about Hinduism. If I'm going to an Asian country, Buddhism. For Israel, Judaism. It's all enchanting, because the ultimate goal is to get closer to God. That gives me a lot of peace."

The singer also practices yoga--though not the kind that has helped his buddies Madonna and Sting maintain their buff bodies. For the younger idol, who surfs and lifts weights to stay in shape physically, yoga is "a very passive thing. The kind I do doesn't lift muscles, but it helps me emotionally."

Martin is clearly more comfortable discussing such pursuits than he is revealing more intimate aspects of his personal life. When asked if he is dating anyone, he tenses visibly. "Silence will tell," he says after a moment, smiling weakly. So he prefers to keep his private affairs private? "Very. But the more I try to do that, the more people want to know. I just don't like other people touching my relationships--because for some reason, whenever that happens, it's over. I mean, there are a lot of people who hate the spotlight. Some friends have told me, 'I would never date you, because you're famous.'"

Martin's feelings about being the poster boy for contemporary Latin pop also are mixed. "I was in Taiwan the other day, and someone called me 'the salsa king,'" he says. "I don't sing salsa! But part of my mission is to educate people--to let them know about all the different cultures and lifestyles inside Latin America, beyond the clichés and stereotypes."

Leila Cobo, Latin/Caribbean bureau chief for Billboard, calls Martin "a good ambassador, because he's truly bilingual and bicultural." Although Cobo had expected to hear more Spanish-language material on Martin's new project, she says he has been an asset to the Latin music community as its profile has risen. "He was in the right place at the right time, but he was also the right person, because he's such a good performer."

Though Martin hasn't scheduled a new tour yet, he has flexed his well-honed performance muscles. Tonight, after a live appearance on TRL, he'll appear before 800 fan-club members and radio contest winners at the Manhattan club Irving Plaza. Tuesday morning, he'll perform outdoors for NBC's "Today." Describing a recent gig at an all-star Hollywood gala benefiting the children's-diabetes charity Carousel of Hope, Martin reveals the true secret of his success.

"Everybody was stiff during my first song or two," he says, grinning slyly. "And I thought, 'I am not leaving this stage until everyone is dancing.' I only had five songs, but I made them like a tequila shot--really pure and potent. And at the end, everyone was dancing.

"I always tell the audience, 'Ladies and gentlemen, let's be who we are. Nobody is going to judge you. I'll be part of the audience; you'll be part of the stage. Are you ready for this?' And that's it. That's freedom."

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