Irek Mukhamedov, 34, is principal male dancer with the Royal Ballet. He defected from Russia in 1990 to establish a new home in London with his wife, Masha, and daughter, Sasha, 4.

MY CLEAREST early memory is of the first night I was left at the Moscow Ballet School by my father, when I was 10 years old. There were four boys to a room and when they put the lights out it was completely dark and nobody spoke. I lay awake for a long time, feeling anxious and lonely but drawing strength from a deep sense of moment - that this was the beginning of my life.

Ballet has been No 1 ever since but now I have home as well, which is extremely important to me. Before, had ballet been taken away from me, I would surely have died. Now I know that one day I will have to stop dancing but I can cope because I know I will be needed by Sasha and Masha.

Both Masha and I have been married before; that's one reason we ran away - our ex-spouses wouldn't leave us alone. We were also expecting Sasha and I knew fathers who had to queue all night to buy milk for their babies. If you wanted Pampers you had to be a millionaire. I always considered Nureyev and Baryshnikov traitors - well, now I am a traitor, too. I have no intention of returning.

The bedroom is the heart of our new home, the place I dream of when I am away on tour. The walls are covered with pictures of the three of us and Masha has made it so warm and relaxing. When I open the little window all I can hear is birdsong.

I love sleeping. I feel that I am in heaven. I never have any trouble going off even if I'm so nervous about a new role that I'm saying 'No, it's impossible' and trembling before I go to bed. That's something I very much like about myself. If I have a performance in the evening, I always sleep for two hours in the afternoon to build up my energy. Nor do I eat after 2pm - it's unpleasant and decidedly unglamorous if your food is gurgling around when you jump.

Masha comes to every performance I dance in. She's the only one I'll take advice from. Sometimes we're invited to a restaurant with other members of the company but usually we go straight home. Even if I'm so physically tired that I can only walk very slowly, I'm still bursting with energy and wind down with a beer as we discuss the performance . . . and Masha's day.

Masha was in the Bolshoi Ballet with me but she doesn't dance now. Last week I dreamt we were doing dance class together and that she was slim again. I'd like her to be slimmer. She was the sexiest girl in the Bolshoi - they called her 'Playboy' - and I was very proud when I tried with her and succeeded]

Ballet companies tend to be hothouses of sexual activity. It's only natural when you're surrounded by the most perfect bodies. You see all this beauty on stage and you want to be close to it - that can very easily develop into sex. Even now that I am absolutely settled with Masha, when I pass a woman on the street I look first at her face and then straightaway at her legs.

When I dance I am in love, not with the ballerina but with the part she's playing. If it's Manon, then I'm in love with Manon. I don't know if Masha gets jealous; maybe she does when I kiss the girl. On our wedding night I danced Romeo with the Bolshoi and all I could think of was how we'd be together when the performance was over. Instead of Bessmertnova's Juliet, I saw only Masha's face and body.

We learnt in Moscow not to call people friends too quickly, and although we socialise a little with some English people, I wouldn't say we have any friends here yet. As my English improves I understand nuances in conversation and I'm not sure if that's good or bad] I've started to dream in English and that's the only significance dreams have for me now. It was very popular in Russia to place great importance on your dreams - if you had a wishful dream on a Tuesday, for example, they said it would come true. I see now that this was only a way of escaping the many day-to-day problems.

If I'm not performing, I am happiest being simply at home with my family. I tire Sasha out before bedtime by getting her to dance - we watch bits of Spartacus on video and then do them together. She's not scared of heights - I lift her up on one hand, my arm straight above my head and she sits there perfectly poised for a moment before I sweep her off to her bed.

We are woken by bouncing around 6am. Sasha leaps around on our bed, Masha tries to carry on sleeping and I begin my getting-up ritual: I move each vertebra one by one, then I stretch and test my muscles. Then it's 'Here we go' and I jump out of bed - always on to the left foot. If I stand on the right foot first, I know I will have the most terrible day]

'Irek Mukhamedov', by Jeffrey Taylor, is available from 4th Estate, pounds 18.99.

(Photograph omitted)