An 11-year-old Elizabethtown girl danced her way into national recognition when she was featured on the “Today” show for her efforts to raise money for pediatric cancer research.

NBC “Today” show co-host Hoda Kotb chose to profile Cierra McCauley, a Rockcreek Elementary School fifth-grader, Friday morning as part of a series of stories about people making a difference. Kotb said Cierra “uses her passion for dance to change the lives of children everywhere.”

The segment was filmed Tuesday in New York City, where Cierra and her parents Mike and Marci McCauley were greeted with big hugs from Kotb, who in several asides outside of the McCauley’s presence, said she had some surprises in store for the 11-year-old.

“I called in a couple of favors from some special friends,” Kotb whispered to the camera. “Special friends to make her (Cierra’s) dreams come true.”

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The “Today” show chronicled Cierra’s dance journey, and her cancer journey, showing her competing in a national competition a short time after her treatment at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. She placed fourth in the competition.

“Dance has been my most favorite thing since I was very little,” Sierra said during the segment. “It made me express my feelings and say what I had to say in dance form.”

In 2012, Cierra, then age 6, was diagnosed with stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, something her father, Mike McCauley, described as “knowing that we were in a fight” for his daughter’s life.

Now cancer-free, she launched a dance challenge, Dancer Beating Cancer, last September to raise money for pediatric cancer research for Riley patients, many of them friends she met during treatment.

She chose the song “Better When I’m Dancing” by Meghan Trainor as the dance challenge song, and asked people to dance to it and post a video using the hashtag #DancerBeatingCancer. Individuals are asked to tag others while making a donation to help fund pediatric research at Riley.

More than 200 videos have been posted, which caught Kotb’s eye and led to Cierra’s trip to the “Today” show.

Surprise, surprise

The first surprise during the McCauleys’ visit last week came when Kotb led Cierra into a studio where the New York Knicks City Dancers — the NBA team’s dance group — were waiting to do the challenge with Cierra, and present her with her own jersey matching the dance team’s.

Backstage, the biggest surprise awaited — as Kotb led Trainor out to Cierra, where the 11-year-old stood open-mouthed in surprise and then was enveloped in a long hug from the singer.

“I love what you’re doing,” Trainor told Cierra. “Keep doing it. I’m so proud of you.”

Kotb then encouraged Cierra to show Trainor the dance with the Knicks dancers, which Cierra performed flawlessly as Trainor danced along, laughing.

“We love you, sweet girl,” Kotb said to Cierra when the dance concluded. “Thank you for everything you did. You started a little wave that’s catching on.”

“And we’ll keep spreading the word,” Trainor promised Cierra as the two shared a farewell.

“She (Trainor) told me that she believed in what I’m doing,” McCauley said. “I didn’t know what to think. It was so cool because I didn’t think she was going to be there.”

McCauley said she personally thanked Trainor for helping support the campaign, which aims to raise $100,000 for pediatric research. For every $1 that is raised, $12 in federal grant money will go to Riley.

“She is an inspiration and for her to help us get this movement started was really cool,” McCauley said.

McCauley, who had previously met Trainor about four years ago after a concert in Louisville, said she was excited to talk with her again.

“I never thought I would meet her again, but for her to be there was really special,” McCauley said.

Students view interview

More than 50 fifth-grade students watched Cierra’s appearance on the “Today” show Friday morning at Rockcreek, principal Jennifer Dettmer said.

Although Riley Hospital and Indianapolis were mentioned in the segment, there was no mention of Columbus, Bartholomew County or Elizabethtown throughout the more than 5-minute segment.

A video clip of McCauley’s appearance on the “Today” show was distributed to other teachers at Rockcreek to show students in their classroom, Dettmer said.

“We want to celebrate her leadership,” Dettmer said.

Cierra’s trip to the East Coast with her parents also included a visit to Times Square and Rockefeller Plaza in New York, and Hershey’s Chocolate World in Hershey, Pennsylvania. A portion of the “Today” show interview was taped last weekend at the McCauley home in Elizabethtown, Mike McCauley said.

He said Cierra’s appearance on the show will provide a big boost to the campaign on a national level. So far, the campaign has raised about $5,000.

“It’s going to open so many doors and platforms and I think it’s going to be a big win,” he said. “It’s a big day for Cierra, it’s a big day for Riley Hospital and a big win for research.”

He also said he is particularly thankful for Kotb, Trainor and the Knicks City Dancers in helping with his daughter’s efforts.

“There’s not enough thank-you’s to say what they’ve done for us and this movement,” he said.

Mike McCauley also had a message for local residents.

“To Columbus, Indiana, do the challenge. Show your support to Cierra, to Riley and this movement,” he said.

Cierra also hopes to see more dance challenges from individuals and groups from across the country.

“It’s not about me,” she said. “I want to do this for Riley Hospital and help them out.”

After the “Today” show segment, Kotb was talking with other hosts on the program, who were complimenting Cierra on her dedication to helping other pediatric cancer patients and her love of dancing.

“She’s spreading the word that dancing to your own tune can make a difference,” Kotb said.

Assistant Managing Editor Julie McClure contributed to this story.

How to help

To learn more about the Dancer Beating Cancer campaign or join in, visit dancerbeatingcancer.org.

Donations can be made on the website to help support pediatric research at Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis.

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Matt Kent is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at 812-379-5712 or mkent@therepublic.com