In Memoriam—Sheila Cluff: Fitness Pioneer and Spa Superstar
By: Pamela Price
Universally recognized in the spa industry and the global health tourism community as a fitness pioneer, Sheila Cluff was a trailblazer known as the Grandmother of Aerobics who established exercise as the basis of a healthy lifestyle.
One of the original members of ISPA, Cluff attended the ISPA Conference & Expo from the very beginning. Her commitment and dedication to ISPA through her service on the ISPA Board of Directors from 1994-98 was only part of her legacy. Even in her later years, Cluff could be found sharing her boundless energy with Conference attendees, even attending morning walks and fitness classes. It’s the way she would light up the room when she walked in that would inspire the growth of countless spa professional careers over the years.
Cluff passed this passion on to her daughter, Cathy, and they worked side by side, both taking an active role in ISPA. Sheila later graced the cover of the March/April edition of Pulse in 2009, and Cathy served on the ISPA board, the ISPA Foundation board and as a volunteer. “It was an honor to not only work alongside my mother as ISPA was evolving, then to take it to the next level as the spa industry boomed during the years of my service as a board member,” Cathy said.
Cluff took her message to the world via her two legendary fitness-inspired resorts in Southern California: The Oaks at Ojai and The Palms at Palm Springs. Sheila and Don opened The Oaks at Ojai in 1977, and it was one of the few spas in California at the time. This was in addition to her multifaceted Health Holidays specializing in spa-inspired travel, whether by land or by sea—or even air!
After graduating from Teacher’s College in Ottawa, Cluff taught girls physical education. She was convinced cardiovascular dance could add a “spark of fun to exercise,” thus creating in the 1950s what would come to be widely known as aerobics in the 1980s. She considered accepting a position as a teacher in Fairbanks, Alaska, but with family encouragement, she went touring with the Hollywood Ice Revue instead. (Upon turning 80 years old in 2016, Cluff competed in the Senior Division, leading to a profile in The Wall Street Journal in which she said skating ‘felt like flying’.) Her moment of truth arrived when fellow ice skater Don Cluff presented her with an engagement ring (which Don secretly left her in the glove compartment of his car). The wedding took place on July 16, 1960. Sheila and Don, her husband of 60 years, had a classic marriage, which at times resembled a sitcom. Once, when somebody asked Don, “Doesn’t it bother you that Sheila is so famous?” he replied, “Not at all, I look lousy in leotards.”
Three years after opening The Oaks at Ojai, Cluff opened The Palms at Palm Springs. The Oaks at Ojai was named “Best Destination Spa in the United States” by Spa Magazine. Cluff created “The Four P’s of Success: Passion, Professionalism, Persistence and Power” during her lifelong affair with fitness. Her vision of fitness was unique.
The remainder of her life was a kaleidoscope of television appearances, being invited to be a guest speaker on her fitness-inspired life and most of all inspiring those who listened to her vivacious speeches to “add a spark of fun” to exercise. Cluff and I co-hosted The Spa Show, a popular radio show in Palm Springs. Her energy radiated success, her creative energy and sheer verve resulted in editorial coverage everywhere from Cosmopolitan and Redbook Magazine to Departures, Los Angeles Magazine and various television programs.
Introducing Sheila at a 2012 benefit, Sharon Norling, M.D., said, “Having traveled the world with Sheila Cluff, I was amazed at how many people in the world knew her.” She went on to describe how Cluff’s inspiring message as keynote speaker at the National Sports Association in Dallas some years prior had inspired a man to build one of Australia’s most preeminent spas.
Cluff touched the lives of countless people because of her vision of universal fitness. Her zeal and commitment were made clear in her last book, an autobiography, Living Your Dream, published in 2013.
The collection of American Spa Culture at the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin includes several books and articles authored by Sheila Cluff along with media coverage of her legacy. Visit briscoecenter.org