Russian Ballerina Says Dancers 'Need to Eat Like Athletes' for Their Powerful Performances

Maura Hohman
Russian Ballerina Says Dancers 'Need to Eat Like Athletes' for Their Powerful Performances

Professional athletes have to maintain a strict fitness and diet regimen — and ballerinas are no exception.

Olga Smirnova is the 25-year-old prima ballerina for the Russian Bolshoi Ballet and the star of The Sleeping Beauty, a film version of the classic ballet that hits U.S. theaters March 10. Since discovering dance as a young girl she has spent her life strengthening her body for her art.

“When I was [in school], I did want to be the best, and that was what propelled me forward to improve and achieve,” she tells PEOPLE. “What I like about dancing is the opportunity to express myself, because in life I can’t always be who I want to be — but on stage I can really be myself.”

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And she works hard onstage and off to accomplish that goal.

Olga Smirnova

“You rarely see people in a professional ballet company who aren’t in shape because the work is so physically demanding,” says Smirnova, who hails from St. Petersburg, Russia.

Ballerinas earn their lean figures, she says, by spending most of their time in the studio.

“As dancers, we start every day with a ballet class and the rest of the day rehearsing all the ballets in our repertoire,” she says. “Even [for] an easier or shorter performance, you still need several days and many hours rehearsing.”

Olga Smirnova

And Smirnova is quick to dispel myths about ballerinas starving themselves to stay thin. “You need to have some harmony in your body, and harmony doesn’t mean that you are extremely thin,” she says. “Ballerinas don’t really struggle to stay in shape because we train and eat like athletes.”

Although she eats a healthfully to stay strong — “you really can’t allow yourself not to be in great shape because there are certain standards you follow in classical ballet” — she’s not above the occasional indulgence.

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“After a performance and or a really challenging rehearsal, you burn a ton of calories, so I like to eat sweets or some kind of dessert, which just makes me happy.”

Olga Smirnova

Still, she doesn’t go overboard.

“Every day we are forced to look at ourselves in a full-length mirror. So you always have an awareness of your physicality and can adjust your diet if you feel you need to eat healthier or eat less sugar,” she says.

But after years of training, she has her meals down to a science. “Before a performance you don’t want to be weighed down by a heavy meal, but you still need energy, so you would have a light meal a few hours before a show,” she explains. “After a show I definitely need to eat a full meal with protein. And for me, dinner isn’t dinner without dessert.”

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It’s a rigorous lifestyle, but once a year Smirnova gets some well-deserved rest.

“The biggest break we have is during the summer for one month, and personally I realized that the best thing for me to do is to completely forget about any exercise for at least two weeks,” she says. “This is the time that I need to take a break and not feel guilty about doing absolutely nothing and just enjoy my time resting.”