Witness to Fitness

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

Framed photos -- most of them shot in black and white -- have been affixed everywhere. Mikhail Baryshnikov. An old-time bodybuilder in a brief bathing suit perched atop a mountain peak brandishing a saber à la Conan the Barbarian. Kenny Newman (a Valle success story and Mr. Southern States titleholder) being lassoed by a half-dozen Playboy bunnies on Miami Beach. A 1985 photo of Valle with International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB) president Peter Potter and former Beach mayor Alex Daoud. ("He was a skinny kid when he first came here," she says of Daoud. "Now look at him.")

Dalia Valle is, in her own words, "a freak." Her father was a career diplomat who traveled constantly; Valle's mother died at the family's home in Tampa in 1921 when Dalia was just five years old. "It was in December," Valle remembers, cutting through the haze of 74 years as if it were happening right in front of her at the moment. "It was hot in the kitchen, but it was cold outside. She opened the window. It started with an earache, then a headache, then she lost consciousness. She died three days later. They weren't sure what exactly caused it. I think it was probably an embolism. Nowadays, with all the antibiotics available, all the medical advances, she would have been saved. She was very young, only 27." Valle grows silent, but only for a moment.

"My father was very young," she continues. "He couldn't take me with him all over the world." Her eyes do not mist over as she states this. Her voice, despite the sadness and loss it manifests, does not waver.

Valle's grandparents, who had settled in Tampa in 1883, assumed the task of raising little Dalia. "I had bronchial asthma as a child," Valle points out. "I had four uncles and three male cousins who were all into sports. My cousins were very athletic. They had beautiful bodies. I suffered many agonies because I wanted to do what they did. I wanted a healthy body and a healthy mind."

The challenge of improving her well-being consumed the sickly tyke. "My grandmother used to say I got indigestion from reading too many books on health," she chuckles. "I've always had boundless energy. It didn't take me long to get to a point where I started to feel good about my physical health. I could swim before I could walk." To this day swimming anchors her daily exercise routine; she logs 40 laps -- two miles -- every morning before breakfast.

Soon Valle was holding her own with her sports-crazed cousins. "It wasn't considered ladylike [to exercise] in those days," she explains without a trace of bitterness. "I shocked the devil out of my grandparents when I was nine. I said I was never going to get married. I was doing things girls didn't do in the Thirties. They never approved of anything I did and were always afraid I would disgrace the family. Finally they disinherited me."

Not only was Valle doing things girls didn't do in the Thirties, she was doing things men didn't do. Vince Gironda remembers lying to avoid being ostracized for indulging in weight training. "We didn't tell anyone what we did," he confides. "They thought [bodybuilders] were gay or goofy."

Valle's obsession with staying in shape led her to train both as a dancer and as a martial artist. Her efforts culminated in her receiving a martial-arts degree -- a photo attached to the diploma shows a beaming Dalia looking much the same as she does today, but with darker hair -- from the World Martial Arts Association and South China University in Taiwan. The degree took ten years to earn.

In 1948 Valle met her husband, Fred Tart, a soft-spoken Englishman who died in 1982. Dalia speaks quietly but assertively about nearly everything else, but when the conversation turns to Fred her voice takes a wistful turn. Of her husband's profession, Valle will say only that Fred was "in the hotel business." They met while she was dancing in England, and were married for 34 years. No kids. "It was a beautiful marriage," Valle assesses. "My husband was four years older than I. He wasn't interested in bodybuilding. He golfed." She did not try to persuade him to become her workout partner. "Marriage is not slavery," she declaims. "I wouldn't want to persuade anyone to do something they didn't want to do."

The couple putatively called Tampa home, but traveled extensively while Fred took care of business and Dalia danced, studied martial arts, and even dabbled at domesticity. By the mid-Fifties they had more or less settled in Miami Beach, then enjoying one of its many incarnations as a hub of glamour and nightlife, where the hotel biz was going gangbusters. It was a good life and a comfortable existence, but after a few years Valle grew restless. She needed a new challenge. Valle had known her way around weight rooms for some time, so it seemed like a natural step to open her own gym on Lincoln Road in 1959, where she could, in her words, "build beautiful bodies." And for 36 years Dalia Valle has done just that.

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