Alumna Dances for the Common Good

She leads a theater that uses dance as diplomacy

by Evan Elliot, USF News

Sherene Melania ’05, executive and artistic director of the Presidio Dance Theatre in San Francisco, is celebrating the company’s 25th anniversary of “justice through dance.”

Melania’s commitment to dance as a public service dates back to 2000 when she was 17 and a ballet apprentice and student in Russia. One morning she walked past an orphanage and saw a girl standing in the snow with just a sweater on — and bare feet.

“I had on five layers of clothing and this little girl was barefoot. I couldn’t believe it,” Melania said.

Melania gathered her classmates and asked them to perform in a benefit for the orphanage. The performance raised enough money to buy coats and boots for every child, she said.

San Francisco Calling

When Melania finished her two-year certificate program in Russia, she returned home to the Bay Area and applied to undergraduate school at USF. In 2002 she joined the inaugural cohort of the performing arts and social justice (PASJ) major.

“I loved USF. It was just such a welcoming and supportive community,” she said. “I learned how to use dance not only as a form of entertainment but as a tool to help others. Even though I was a student, my voice was always heard — not only heard but respected.”

While she was at USF, Melania performed as a guest artist with companies in Europe and with the Presidio Dance Theatre in San Francisco. Professor Kathi Gallagher saw that the PASJ program and the theater shared a commitment to social justice and agreed with Melania that the two organizations should work together.  

More than 30 PASJ students from USF have interned with the Presidio Dance Theatre over the years, Melania said. This summer, there are two: Natalia Garcia-Moreno ’26 performs onstage and Erica Edberg ’26 helps backstage.

“Having studied with the Presidio Dance Theatre under Sherene’s leadership since I was 6 years old, I’ve grown up promoting justice through dance,” Garcia-Moreno said. “Being in the PASJ program is a continuation of that work and I’m so happy to be a part of both communities.”

Dance as Lingua Franca

Presidio Dance Theatre is a multigenerational and international company that combines ballet, folk dances, and theatrical performance, Melania said.

“We see dance as a bridge across cultures, dance as a common language. We see dance as a way to promote compassion, understanding, and equity,” she said. Each year on Children’s Day at the War Memorial Opera House, the theater gives free performances to 6,200 students from San Francisco public schools.  

In 2010, the Presidio Dance Theatre won the U.S. State Department’s award for excellence in cultural diplomacy and dance. In 2011, Melania earned a master’s degree in arts education from Harvard.

In May, the theater staged a program called “Unbreakable: Honoring the Women of Iran.” Melania choreographed it and danced in it. The performance was a benefit for the Center for Human Rights in Iran. It had particular meaning for her as an Iranian American, she said.

“We explored themes of oppression, loss, and hope. We celebrated the strength and resilience of Iranian women.”