SHE SHIMMERS onto the stage of Washington's Sheraton Park Hotel, every sequin sparkling, smile blazing, as the impatient audience cheers and surges toward her, chanting, "Celia Cruz!" "Celia!" "Celia!" "Celia Cruz!" This is it: ladies and gentlemen, damas y caballeros; the real thing, the queen of tropical music, la rumbera de America Latina has hit the stage. A thousand hands reach toward the tiny platform as if asking for a blessing.

An older woman with thick glasses and a kindly smile, looking worn and tired, makes her way across the Sheraton Park's long lobby. She walks painfully, on a pair of spindly high heels. The tight fuchsia dress she wears under a white mink jacket is too bright against her dulled skin, too glaring for a winter afternoon. Fatigue blurs her features.

"Chica, I sang in the La Romana Hotel last night until midnight, then we got up at 4 a.m. to drive to the airport. We got to Miami and the airline misplaced the suitcase with my stage shoes. We had to stop on the way in so I could buy a new pair. But they're too low . . . look!" She pulls a pair of 4-inch silver spike heels out of a bag and shrugs, sighs and eases into a cushioned chair in the lobby with the exhaustion of someone used to very hard work.

This is Celia Cruz?

This is Celia Cruz, the embodiment of what some call salsa, some call Latin music, and others call Afro-Antillean rhythm. Loosely, it is the blending of the Spanish colonizers' lyrical musical tradition with the rhythms, harmonies and chants of the African slaves who made the Caribbean prosper. From the sugar cane fields the music migrated with the workers to the cities, where it became funky, sly, orchestrated and eminently danceable. The lyrics are about sex, but just as frequently about the neighborhood ragpicker, a fellow musician's big mouth or the funeral of an old woman who asked "not for a wake but for a rumba."

For the last 30 years Cruz and her rich metallic voice have represented everything Latins prize in the great Afro-Caribbean musical tradition. Her career, which began in the late '40s on Cuban radio, has survived 20 years of exile in the United States. Her electrifying energy, intricate rhythms and sheer vocal generosity have sold dozens of "discos de oro."

Her appeal may not be universal, for in 20 years here she has yet to conquer a permanent Anglo audience, but beyond the United States she is revered from Africa to Finland. She has played the Olympia in Paris and toured South America more times than she cares to remember. Last fall, and not for the first time, Latins converged on Madison Square Garden by the tens of thousands to hear her sing.

It is 9:30 p.m. Oct. 23 at Madison Square Garden and Cruz is midway through a "tribute to Celia Cruz" that lets her offstage only long enough to change costumes. As she reappears, sheathed in a shiny red jumpsuit some might consider unflattering to her full figure, the audience renews its cheers. "Mamacita!" yells an adoring teen-ager. "Mami!" he shouts, Coke aloft, slapping his feet on the floor in delight. "Now you really are looking good!"

Her voice pours out over the strong rhythmic brass background of salsa orchestras like one more joyous metallic instrument. Her style has changed remarkably little over the years; it so thoroughly embodies a musical tradition that any evolution or development might strike her fans as a betrayal. Her singing is often humorous, never sentimental and rarely sad. "It doesn't sell," she explains, but it also doesn't suit her temperament.

Her authenticity has made her emotionally and professionally hardy. Whereas some female singers might croon a man's fantasy of what a woman should sound like--Donna Summer and Olivia Newton-John come to mind--Celia Cruz, like Edith Piaf before her and Aretha Franklin after, sings like what a woman knows she feels like. That stomping, unrarefied womanly energy has propelled her career.

The same unmelodramatic, unsentimental spirit that shapes her singing informs her view of the world. As an exile from Castro's Cuba, she has not, like other musical exiles, made anti-Castro politics a part of her presentations or of her interviews. She is bitter about the Cuban government's refusal to let her attend her father's funeral a few years ago, refers to herself as "homelandless," but otherwise has little time for nostalgia. Dignity is important. "I left Cuba permanently in 1961," she says, and quickly adds, "but I left because I wanted to, of my own free will. Nobody threw me out, do you understand?"

There is only one more thing she wants out of life, she says. "You know, for some reason I have never been able to appear on an English-speaking television station. At one Madison Square Garden concert they came and filmed the backup act. It's not that I'm ungrateful to the Latins, my audience, but American television is very important. I need that. It's my dream."

THERE WAS a time in her career when her audience wasn't so large, a decade-long slump that began when she immigrated to the United States. As Cruz explains it, most Cuban musicians remained behind, the record industry in the United States was not geared up for Latin music production, and those musicians from the Afro-Caribbean tradition who did go into exile floundered out of their element.

Cruz, who began her career as a singer with the most popular band in Cuba, the Sonora Matancera, survived the dead calm by rowing hard. She toured Latin America constantly, and even as the rock explosion and the invasion of Latin airwaves by U.S.-recorded commercial music reduced her audience, she gave as many as six performances a day.

"In Mexico, we would do the first show at the Teatro Blanquita," recalls her husband and personal manager, Pedro Knight, tall and courtly as his name implies. "After the theater came an afternoon shopping center or a housing development promotion, one or two of them, then a talk show with a song or two, then the two evening shows at the Blanquita, and then a private party. It was deadly."

Cruz and Knight, a former trumpeter for the Sonora Matancera, followed their errant life from their marriage in 1962 on through the decade, oblivious to a sociopolitical phenomenon that was altering the profile of the United States; the massive migration to the Eastern Seaboard of people from the Caribbean nations, coupled with the explosion--both in Puerto Rico and within the Puerto Rican immigrant community in New York--of a fervent nationalist movement.

IS anybody here not ready to dance? Is anybody here an Anglo? The Dominican dishwashers and electricians, the Cuban shop owners and the Colombian dentists, the sociology students and bank tellers and maids are all here in their spangled glory, some in sequins from head to toe, others in let-down chinos and a polyester jacket. From the very first song, the dance floor has been crowded, and by now the air is thick with the vapor of perspiration. Each couple executes its steps carefully and joyously. Steps worked out over the years, each family with a dancing tradition, each son and daughter with a special twist or spin. Sex and flirtation and sheer joy of life arc from couple to couple as they work this dancing out, obliterating the cold Anglo winter outside, saying, "This is my chance to live, don't nobody take it away from me."

In the early '70s Latin culture was suddenly everywhere; in the makeup and fashions of New York City, where women walked into Henri Bendel wearing mock-Latin bright red lipstick and pencil-drawn curved eyebrows; in the explosive rage of the Young Lords and the Puerto Rican nationalist movements.

"Whites had rock, blacks had soul, and now we had salsa," impresario Ricardo Mercado recalls. "It was born in New York from Puerto Rican and Dominican roots. We took Cuban music and modernized it, made the arrangements hipper . . . made the whole thing tastier." Taste, sabor, is what salsa is all about. What any rumbero displays.

Few rumberos have more salsa than Johnny Pacheco--a silver-haired, Dominican rumba band leader and flutist--who started recording with Cruz in the mid-'70s.

"Her career really turned around then," Mercado says. "Johnny had had this dream for a long time, of singing with her, and when her contract ran out with Chico records in 1975, Celia and Johnny recorded together. It was fantastic."

MADISON SQUARE Garden is full to the ceiling when Cruz makes her entrance in the white ruffled and red polka-dotted dress inherited by Cuban rumberas from the Spanish gypsies. She sings a perennial favorite--"El Yerberito"--taken from the traditional Cuban herbal medicine man's chant, perhaps unaware that the scent of marijuana--yerba--is uncoiling its languorous shadow, stretching its cat's claws into the dark void of the auditorium. The audience has purchased small plastic roses that glow in the dark, thousands of them, waving them across the isles in time to Cruz's rhythms. By the last song, "Bemba Color'a," with Pacheco and salsa bandleader Willie Colo'n and the Sonora onstage, the lights are half on and the audience and Cruz, in full view of each other, are chanting back and forth, hitting the counterpoint refrain in unison. She makes the sign of the cross, throws a kiss to the audience and falls on her knees. "You are the joy of Celia," she says, and is gone.

The massive turnout at the Garden could prove to be a final hurrah for the salsa movement and Cruz's revival. At the end of a meal at the hotel restaurant, she acknowledges that radio play lists and record sales have plummeted. "There is a great deal of tape piracy and young people are all plugged in to their Atari games," she says. "Who knows what will happen? Perhaps I shall end up as an old lady living off Social Security. I've certainly paid enough . . .

"Chica, it's not that bad!" She grins from ear to ear, her eyes mischievous behind the thick lenses. "Even now . . . tired, and my shoes flying off to somewhere, and knowing I'm going to trip in my dress because the new shoes are too low . . . I laugh, because it's all fun." She says good night, ever courteous, and heads toward her room for a preperformance nap, walking as if her feet hurt.