A Return to Bliss
When Sheila Cluff glides across the ice, she feels like she’s flying. Her mind, focused on the details of precise footwork and pretty hand movements, is free from the day’s stress. As she skates her figure patterns, she’s enraptured by the quiet whoosh of blades skimming over ice and breath fogging the air around her. She revels in her own sense of grace and balance.
This is bliss.
Cluff, 73, is the founder and owner of the destination spa the Oaks at Ojai, and by every measure, she has been wildly successful: fitness pioneer, honored businesswoman, wife, and mother. “Passion, Persistence, Professionalism, and Power = Success” is a mantra Cluff has shared internationally at spa conferences, as well as with the people who visit the Oaks to lose weight and improve their lives. And yet, it took returning to her childhood sport of ice skating some 45 years later for her to find a joy and connection she hadn’t realized she was missing.
Cluff took to the ice as a child in Canada where, she says, the options were to “ski, skate, or hibernate.” Starting with lessons around age six, she eventually qualified to compete nationally in pairs skating. That sounds more impressive than it actually is, she laughs: “We placed 13th out of 14 teams.”
Despite the lack of competitive success, Cluff loved to skate. So when a scout approached her about joining a Hollywood ice show, she was thrilled that her parents gave their blessing for her to turn pro between high school and college. Cluff skated in Chicago, Mexico City, and ultimately, New York City, where she enjoyed big thrills and a bit of celebrity as a line skater. She was just 19.
Owing to her level-headed nature, Cluff left behind her life as a Roxyette for teachers college. She became a physical education teacher and a skating pro. Initially, teaching PE didn’t go so well. “The girls had their period six times a month to get out of class,” Cluff recalls, laughing. “So here I am, failing at my first job, wondering how I can get them to want to come to my class.”
Cluff, recalling her own joy at skating ice patterns, worked with a pianist (no boom boxes in those days!) to set the movements to music and then began teaching them on the gym floor. “I called it CardioVascular Dance, and the girls just loved it.” Soon, the girls were telling their parents about “CV,” as they’d dubbed the class. “One mother demanded to know, ‘What are you doing to my daughter!? Her marks are better, her skin cleared up, she’s happier. I want that!’”
The success of CV in Cluff’s PE class inspired her to rent a church hall and begin offering what we know today as aerobics classes. By now, Cluff was married, and her husband, Don, wanted to see her more often than her 90-hour-a-week schedule permitted. He promised to pay the bills while she pursued her passion for fitness. Cluff left skating and PE behind, invested her savings, and soon opened her first spa in Ontario in 1960. Her renowned Oaks at Ojai spa debuted in 1977.
Cluff found her way back to the ice a few years ago when a coach caught sight of her skating with her five-year-old granddaughter and invited her to join the masters group at the Channel Islands Figure Skating Club. He left out the fact that most of the “masters” were about 35 years old.
Skating again, Cluff has experienced things she never did as a young competitor. She’s twice taken top national honors in individual age-group competition, beating out those “60-year-old kids.”
She’s recovered from a broken hip that landed her in the hospital on her 72nd birthday. The injury, she admits, was the result of a little too much ego trying a little too hard to pull off a high, fast loop jump at skating camp. She’s defied her doctor’s prediction that she’d be using a walker at this point in her recovery, and instead, she’s gliding along better than ever, preparing to defend her national title. Her healing process also inspired her to create the popular “Sit, Strengthen, and Stretch” class she now teaches at the Oaks.
Most notably, Cluff has learned to skate for fun. She’s taking pleasure in learning new moves on the ice, even if she doesn’t land them in competition. Instead of the fearful feeling she often had as a young competitor, she now enjoys the fact that the audience delights in her, a vibrant 70-something, boldly taking on a sport.
Cluff is rehearsing with the Five Hot Mamas, an eclectic group of women in their 30s and 40s — a waitress, a schoolteacher, a church secretary, a stay-at-home-mom. The “girls” don gold go-go boot skates and heat up the ice to tunes like “Mamma Mia” and “Money, Money, Money.” They’re competing in the masters competition in Lake Placid, N.Y., in October.
“These women have become an important part of my life, and if it weren’t for skating, I wouldn’t have had the joy and pleasure of getting to know them,” Cluff says. “In fitness, we say that ‘sweat is the great equalizer,’ and when we’re out there practicing, we’re all sweating when we’re done.” And she couldn’t be any happier about that.
Jennifer Derryberry Mann writes, edits, and teaches yoga in Athens, Georgia.