Witness to Fitness

Seventy-nine-year-old Miami Beach bodybuilding and weightlifting goddess Dalia Valle will whip you into shape

And Valle likes to get an early start on ensuring such longevity, preferring prospects who come to her when they are underweight and young. "It's not that I'm prejudiced against overweight people," she clarifies. "It's just that they can hurt themselves. There are plenty of pretty spas around for them to use the StairMasters."

Valle's pet phrase is "you know that." As in "don't be an idiot." She'll say, "A big breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Could you drive a car for eight hours without refueling? Of course not! You know that." Or, to a momentarily addled reporter who asks if her grandparents settled in Miami when they left Italy for the United States in 1883, "Miami was nothing but a mangrove swamp then! You know that.

"People assume that because I'm in this field I must be brainless," she fumes. "Or they portray me as not all there. That really angers me. I was double-promoted in school, and it wasn't because I'm tall!" She makes these statements with such conviction that few have the temerity to contradict her. But Valle knows that not everyone agrees with her view of the world. "I dare to be myself," she says. "I'm a character and proud of it."

Like the proprietress, nearly all of the equipment and furnishings in Dalia Valle's gymnasium have a few years on them. There's a broken 1959 Philco black-and-white TV in one corner. Valle's desk came over with her when she moved from Lincoln Road to her present Washington Avenue location in 1974. "It's an antique," she says, a twinkle in her eyes. "A relic, like the owner." Many pieces, such as the leg-press machine, the bench-press bench with detachable bicep curling pad, or the close-grip bench-press bar with the dip in the middle, were custom built to Valle's specs when she first opened her doors on Lincoln Road back in 1959.

Valle's space is so huge -- 6500 square feet, covering the offices of Mara E. de Garcia, M.D., Belle's Beauty Salon, and the South Beach Pub -- that the weights and the people lifting them tend to get swallowed up in the vastness. When Valle moved in she knocked down several walls (half a dozen offices occupied the northernmost half of what is now the gym), laid down a wooden floor, and installed six overhead paddle fans. A sprinkling of hanging fluorescent lights supplements the illumination filtering in from three big windows that open on to Washington Avenue in the front of the building, and three more that overlook the alley out back.

The paddle fans and the cross-ventilation help, but the gym is still hot. "I want people to sweat," asserts the proprietress. "It's not good for the body to exercise in the cold. I spent $4100 on air conditioning, and then I took it out."

Pale yellow concrete block walls support several wide, freestanding mirrors spaced like giant silvery gap teeth along the periphery of the room, which is nearly long enough and wide enough to contain a full-court basketball game. In addition to the usual incline and flat benches, pulleys, dumbbells, barbells, sit-up boards, Roman chair, calf-raise machine, and squat racks that can be found in any standard weight room, Dalia's body-sculpting emporium offers dancer's stretching bars, a twelve-foot by twelve-foot-square tumbling pad she calls her "playpen," a heavy punching bag and a speed bag, plus two exercise bikes (a Tunturi and a chrome Exerow) that look to be among the world's oldest.

Despite all of the mirrors, weights, racks, windows, and bookshelves, there is still no shortage of blank wall space. It is in her attempts to fill these openings that Dalia Valle's personality reveals itself. At the top of the stairs Dalia has hung a few of her own original oil paintings -- dramatic, colorful, abstract (or would they be cubist?) numbers that resemble stained glass windows; they loom over a small round wrought-iron table with two matching chairs. If you stand back and look at just this tiny section of the room, you could imagine yourself about to have a cup of tea in the parlor of an old art collector's mansion.

Two dusty display cases support dozens of bodybuilding trophies. Obsolete maps of the Louisiana Purchase, the Roman Empire, and the Planisfero del globo celeste (a replica of an ancient map of stars and constellations) adorn one wall. Several framed dictums stencilled in now-fading ink on yellowing paper are mounted on other walls: "MEMBERS MUST OBEY DRESS CODE," and "MEMBERS USING FACILITIES AND EQUIPMENT DO SO AT THEIR OWN RISK." These impersonal notebook-paper-size signs are augmented by index cards with more focused, hand-scrawled messages: "Never put Olympic plates on regular equipment"; "Please!!! Do not move this mirror!?*(!)"; and, "If I catch the dumb-dumb touching my fans, out he goes!"

As might be gathered from the stern tone of her stenciled missives, Valle rules with an iron hand. While conversing with New Times, for example, she notices that someone has used the incline bench and moved on without taking the weights off the bar ("breaking down" in weight-room parlance). "If I'd have caught him, I'd have killed him," the disciplinarian avers. "I'm very tough. Part of the exercise is to put away the equipment when you get through."

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