From Kitten to Vixen

updated 10/13/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/13/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

One a.m. in the darkness of a Las Vegas club, and suddenly Britney Spears and her dancers come onstage unannounced to try out some new numbers. They quickly get down to some dirty dancing—same sex, opposite sex, who knows with all the writhing? "She was grinding on another girl," says an observer. "It seemed intentionally aimed at shock value. She was definitely trying to be sexy—and it was not a failed attempt. She looked amazingly hot." Coming soon to an arena near you: Britney Spears, new and definitely not PG-rated.

Gearing up for the Nov. 18 release of her fourth album, Get in the Zone, the former Mouseketeer has been hard at work shedding the last of her pop-kitten innocence and refashioning herself into a mature 21-year-old sex object. Will she sound it too? On the new album, which she described to Rolling Stone as "sensual...sexual," she'll be singing a duet with R. Kelly with the lyrics: "Oh, it's so hot, and I need some air/Boy don't stop, 'cause I'm halfway there." Other not-so-subtle statements: In W she posed like a designer-clad lap dancer and admitted she lost her vaunted virginity to ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake during their romance. ("I thought he was the one. But I was wrong!") On the Rolling Stone cover she's all but naked. And there has been some unorthodox lip action. Five days before her Aug. 28 kiss with Madonna at the MTV Video Music Awards set off a ruckus, she was spotted outside a rehearsal studio in L.A. sharing what appeared to be a smooch with her choreographer and backup dancer Columbus Short, 21. He's married. Oops.

Spears insists she's not repeating the ill-fated romance between Jennifer Lopez and her backup dancer Cris Judd. True, she and Short have since been spotted everywhere from a balcony at the Hotel Hassler in Rome, where she filmed a Pepsi spot with Pink and Beyoncé, to Manhattan, where she hung out with him at the Trump International Hotel. Then again, they registered for separate rooms, and when she decided to see the romantic Trevi Fountain at 4 a.m. on the Rome trip, she went with Pink. "They're just friends," says her publicist. "He's her choreographer, and they've been working very closely together." Says Camille A. Shuford, a dancer and friend: "Columbus rocks. Anyone would choose [to work with] him if you saw him dance."

You'll probably get to catch some of Short's moves—and more—when Britney tours. "Before we were seeing some Britney belly," says Billboard editor Chuck Taylor. "Now we're seeing every curve."

Marisa Laudadio and Kwala Mandel in Los Angeles, Sharon Cotliar and Liza Hamm in New York City and Nina Biddle in London

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