Witness to Fitness

It's a sunny afternoon. You're out strolling along Washington Avenue, dodging the tanned in-line skaters as they dart among knots of oblivious models, model wanna-be's, and shirtless muscle boys in Daisy Dukes and combat boots. As you approach the South Beach Pub near Seventh Street, you look up and notice a four-foot-wide green oval sign with letters that match the faded yellow pastel color of the building from which the sign hangs. It reads "Dalia Valle Gymnasium."

Beneath the sign there is an open doorway. You duck inside and find yourself in a shadowy green and yellow foyer that could have been lifted right out of a Martin Scorsese movie; it exudes a seedy, Mean Streets kind of charm. The cracked and faded linoleum floor beneath your feet leads to two large metal doors: a black one on the left labeled "Design Studio"; on the right, an unmarked slab covered with a thick coat of vibrant green enamel that has chipped off at most of the corners. Behind the green door awaits not the carnal pleasure palace of Marilyn Chambers fame, but a long, narrow, dimly lighted flight of stairs, the same stairs featured in almost every second-rate boxing movie made in the Forties and Fifties.

But Rocky doesn't train in the gym at the top of this particular flight of stairs. Soothing classical music from a radio tuned to WTMI-FM serenades you, not the rat-a-tat-tat of a speed bag, the slap of a jump rope, or the thumping and grunting of a couple of sparring palookas. The two or three gentlemen lifting weights in this cavernous fitness studio do not huff or puff or exhort each other to "Push it! Push it!" They do not high-five. And they never, ever drop their weights. You just have entered the quietest gymnasium in the world.

Smartest, too, very likely. Against the wall ahead of you and to the right lean a couple of bookshelves laden with the writings of Plutarch, Homer, Cervantes, and Plato, as well as scholarly tomes on painting, nutrition, medicine, and the natural wonders of the world. An Editor's Treasury. Medical Aid Encyclopedia. Controlled Painting. Gray's Anatomy.

An old wooden desk rises directly in front of you. Atop it repose an ancient Smith-Corona typewriter, a paperweight bearing the logo of the U.S. Secret Service, a takeout menu from Charlotte's Kitchen, a government-issue nameplate, and a jumble of papers and pamphlets, some of which look new and some of which look weathered by time. The gym's diminutive 79-year-old proprietress, Dalia Valle, sits at the desk, one leg drawn up under her like a high school student. From her vantage point near the top of the stairs she can both monitor the efforts of the patrons who train at her establishment and immediately confront unwelcome interlopers who invade her realm.

The latter category includes uninvited New Times reporters. "I don't want publicity," she warns sternly. "What for? So hundreds of idiots can come and bother my members? Who needs that?" It takes some serious coaxing to persuade her to relent, and only under the condition that any story about her stresses that DALIA VALLE DOES NOT ACCEPT NEW MEMBERS WHO HAVE NOT BEEN REFERRED BY AN EXISTING MEMBER! So all you muscle-heads and gym rats looking for a new place to work out on the Beach can forget it. Dalia doesn't want you. Especially if you box.

"People are in the habit of thinking this is a boxing gym. That makes me furious," she scowls. "I don't want boxers in here. They're a loud bunch of people. You know how they are -- groaning and making lots of noises. That would distract the rest of my members."

Valle speaks protectively of her members. Hers are not the usual motley assortment of health club habitues and dumbbell dilettantes. Most of Dalia Valle's regulars are long-time Beach residents who come not to socialize or to salve their consciences for recent culinary misdemeanors, but rather to grab a no-B.S. workout: The kind of people who don't mind rusty barbell plates, who don't need the latest gleaming Ergo-Life-O-HydroCam equipment with attached pulse counter to tell them how many calories they burned from thinking about working out.

And her members speak just as affectionately of Dalia. "She's unbelievable," opines Albert Rivero, who discovered Valle's gym six months ago on a tip from a co-worker at nearby Puerto Sagua restaurant. "She's in incredible shape. She gives everybody personal training at first, and then she keeps an eye on your progress." Rivero has tried a few other gyms in the area, but prefers Valle's because, as he puts it, "Nobody bothers you. People come to this place to feel comfortable."

Richard Hale, a waiter and caddy who has followed the likes of Greg Norman around the golf links, echoes Rivero's sentiments. "This is the only gym I can really go to," he claims. When Hale first came to her gym in 1981, Valle worked with him to build a workout routine. "It just suits me. Dalia makes you feel comfortable. She's fair and honest and she doesn't play loud bubble-gum music like all the other gyms."

Adds member Robert Reincke, "[Valle] promises nothing more than blood, sweat, and tears. Her gym is hardwood floors, classical music for concentration, and self-designed equipment. Nothing fancy. [Valle is] the genuine, real thing."

Dalia Valle looks at least two, possibly three decades younger than her 79 years. She has the energy of a teenager, the strength of a woman in her twenties, and her skin is so smooth there would be no Oil of Olay left on supermarket shelves if Valle started pitching it. (Her secret for soft skin? A balanced diet and washing with plain old soap and water.) Her hair has grayed from its natural ebony color, but she wears it long and cinches it with a beaded elastic band. She pads around her gym in bare feet ornamented with beaded ankle-toe bracelets known as slave chains. She covers her four-foot, eleven-inch, 100-pound frame in an iridescent blue leotard and looks the picture of vitality as she stands with hands on hips, back straight, posture impeccable.

Most of the big names in bodybuilding -- especially the sport's stars who came to prominence during the Seventies -- have worked out at Dalia's club at one time or another. Arnold. Franco Columbo. Steve Reeves. Chris Dickerson. Sergio Oliva. ("The biggest bodybuilder I've ever seen," Dalia remembers, referring to Oliva. "Arms bigger than my waist.") Dalia still displays dozens of trophies -- Mr. Florida, Mr. Southern States, Mr. America (40 and over), et cetera -- won by men (and a few, but nowhere nearly as many, women) who trained regularly under her watchful eye.

She recalls Columbo with a special fondness. "Franco was a power-lifter when he came here from Italy in the mid-Sixties," Valle reminisces. "From Sardinia. Couldn't speak a word of English. But Franco always worked harder than anyone to be the best. In 1973 he sent me a ticket to the [Mr. Olympia competition staged at the] Brooklyn Academy of Music. He looked better than Arnold at the time. Always has. But Arnold won that contest and they booed him.

"Arnold's been great for bodybuilding," she continues. "He has a brain and he used it. You can't hold that against him. I've always liked Arnold." She proffers a copy of a brochure titled Massive Arms by "Arnold Strong," an ill-considered stage name Schwarzenegger briefly adopted before claiming his unprecedented seven consecutive Mr. Olympia titles in the Seventies.

While Valle has kind words for most of the lifters who have made her acquaintance, the same cannot be said for a few of the sport of bodybuilding's better-known entrepreneurs. "Arthur Jones invented Nautilus equipment, but you never see him without a coat and tie," she says disdainfully. "He has the skinniest little legs I've ever seen."

Joe Weider, the muscle magazine magnate who claims to have trained both Columbo and Schwarzenegger, rates particular scorn. "He's what you'd call a con artist," Valle deadpans. "He's a promoter, like Don King. He said he trained people he never trained. He waited until they got famous in Europe, brought them over, and claimed he trained them. He hates my guts." Presumably her willingness to debunk publicly Weider's claims of being trainer to the stars has done little to endear Valle to the promoter.

Valle never would stoop to such tactics to make a buck. "I can do anything but make money," she smiles. "And that's because I'm not interested in it. Peace of mind is more important."

At an age when many of her peers motor around retirement communities and shopping centers in little electric carts, Valle projects a youthful vigor. If she has a longevity secret, it can be summed up in one word: moderation. Dalia Valle swears by it. "Diet is a four-letter word," she contends. "I eat everything in moderation. You need balance. Variety. There's vitamins and minerals in food that haven't been discovered yet. I eat three eggs every day with real milk. I don't drink dirty water [i.e., skim milk]. Everything in moderation is good for you, and nothing is good for you if you don't like it."

This no-nonsense approach applies to exercise, too. "You have to work hard to get into shape," she advises. "I tell my members it takes blood, sweat, and tears to stay in shape. Good food. There is no such thing as shortcuts."

Valle's emphasis on nutrition and hard work parallels that of another bodybuilding impresario -- 77-year-old Vince Gironda, who founded the legendary Vince's Gym in Studio City, California, in 1945. Whereas Valle has only disdain for Arthur Jones and Joe Weider, she has nothing but respect for Gironda, who won the Mr. Universe title in London in 1964 -- at the age of 46 -- and earned a reputation as a maverick early in his career for his emphasis on diet and nutrition, as well as for his passionate, holistic, borderline-spiritual approach to fitness. "There's a definite connection between the body and the mind," affirms the affable Gironda when reached by phone at his gym.

Like Valle, the septuagenarian bodybuilder practices what he preaches and has the physique of a person decades younger to show for it. "The scientific community is just starting to acknowledge bodybuilding's contribution to longevity," Gironda explains.

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."

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.

"There's nothing uglier than a woman who shows off," says Dalia Valle. She still simmers as she recalls one obnoxious Miami News reporter who walked into her gym on a weekday afternoon several years ago. The Olympics were on, and Valle had brought in a TV to watch them. Valle is an Olympics fanatic, attending as a spectator whenever possible.

"Watching soap operas?" the man asked patronizingly.
Valle resisted the temptation to toss out the guy bodily. "Do you work out?" he badgered. "Show me your routine." She showed him. "You like to show off, huh?" he responded after seeing her go through part of her workout.

So let it be said right here, right now: Nothing in this article is meant to be construed as an example of Dalia Valle showing off or trying to call attention to herself. If it comes out that way, it's a mistake. But Valle is truly an amazing physical specimen. At the age of 79, she still can lug around the heavy weights. She even holds back a few exercises -- she refers to them as killer-dillers -- that she performs only when the gym is empty, for fear her members would hurt themselves attempting to emulate her. Part of her abdominal routine, for example, consists of standing on her head (in the playpen) and doing leg raises -- lowering her legs until they're at a 90-degree angle with the rest of her body, and then extending them again. Don't try that at home.

You have to remember that Valle has been working out for longer than many people have been alive. And yet she has, well, curves. Valle may be stronger than most women one-third her age, but the buffed-and-cut look as popularized by contemporary female bodybuilders such as Linda Murray never has appealed to her. "I'm not against that," she notes diplomatically. "It's just that I wouldn't want to look the way they do."

To this day Valle swears by the common-sense approach to better health. She has little patience for fad diets or fat phobia, dismissing macrobiotics as "fairy tales!" and warning that "people without enough cholesterol end up looking like dried prunes. There are so many fallacies, like the idea that grapefruit can dissolve fat. Vitamins E, A, and K are all fat-soluble. If you don't have enough cholesterol, you're gonna suffer from malnutrition. You can hurt your kidneys."

Valle's traditional, big-picture view of nutrition applies on a larger scale to life itself. As her eclectic reading tastes and original paintings attest, she doesn't just talk about the importance of a well-rounded existence, she lives it. "I hate to go to bed at night," she admits while giving a visitor a tour of her gym, "and I hate to get up." She passes the heavy bag on her way to a side room where she stores an Igloo cooler full of ice water. Almost reflexively she slugs the bag and keeps on walking.


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