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Dalia’s Gym

South Beach used to really suck.  Especially for a kid having to live there after several great years in Hollywood, CA.  And having to arrive there in the hot summer of 1982 just made it worse.

Tony revenging on Ocean Drive

1982.

We’re not talking modeling agencies and clubs and bars and celebrity sightings.  This was before all that.  Instead, picture Tony Montana getting chased out of a squalid apartment by a crazy guy with a chainsaw and onto a nearly deserted Ocean Drive.

“God’s Waiting Room” they called it.  The buildings down there that weren’t shuttered up hosted the forgotten elderly, assembled there from all over the country.  Aluminum walkers with tennis ball bottoms, flowery 1920’s looking bathing suits, and plastic nose guards (to block the sun) were a pretty crappy tableau for a 15 year old used to being around healthy young Californians.  In LA I’d once lived in a building full of retired people, now I was in the middle of a town full of ‘em.

Miami Beach, before all that.

Miami Beach, Florida; ever since its founding, was immensely popular, and then it was not, and then it was really not, then it became popular again.  I’d landed right in the middle of that timeline, in the oppressive summer heat and the absurd tandoori red sidewalks that only seemed to radiate more heat back up to me, making it even less comfortable.  Being a teenager I was already moody, but this stuff just brought me down to the ground.

I hated the Art Deco architecture of the buildings which seemed as forlorn as the few residents who lived in them. They were rundown buildings and often had so many roaches in them that periodically (funds permitting) they’d have to temporarily evacuate them and cover the whole building with a tarp (called tenting); then fill the whole thing with Raid (or whatever they used).  The area was under populated and too quiet.  Almost every single storefront was closed on Española Way and the surrounding blocks of Washington Avenue.  The only action was at Fedco, proud purveyors of Fleet brand enemas, Toblerone and Kedem juice.

One time the Beach Boys played a free concert on the beach and I really think they were the youngest people there.

Some of the old people that lived down there had numbered tattoos on their wrists, they were Holocaust Survivors.  I always hoped they’d had happy lives after going through one of the worst ordeals in human history; because I couldn’t see how anybody would be that fulfilled concluding it on South Beach.  They looked neglected to me and it seemed to me a sad way to end a life that had already been filled with such early torment.

I didn’t really talk to anyone there who I’d considered old.  There were some, whom I’d have loved to ask questions of; but didn’t because I felt I’d be prying.  So, to me, the old people were largely ghosts slowly shuffling up and down Collins Ave., biding their time.   Being young and kind of naive, I had this silly feeling that an old person might die right in front of me, and then what would I do?  So I largely shunned them.

Three years later, while Miami Beach was starting a slow resurgence, I met an “old” person who clearly was not waiting for the end; in fact she’d almost certainly bop me in the nose for calling her “old.”

Dalia Valle was a 5-foot tall (maybe a little less) 70-year-old (or younger, she bragged about her age in reverse, like a little kid always trying to be older) gym owner and personal trainer.  She had long black hair with a few grays and looked easily 20 years younger than her age.  Barefoot and clad in a unitard, she ran a creaky second floor un-air-conditioned-in-any-season gym at 715 Washington Avenue.  She was there in the days when Angelo Dundee was training Mohammed Ali just 2 blocks south.  She was there when Angelo and everybody else had packed up and left.  And she was still there in 1985 when I met her.

The gym, circa 1988.

Her only concession to the stifling heat of summer (the gym faced the leeward non-breezy side of the island) was 3 open windows and a large fan on a floor stand.  Several ceiling fans rotated slowly and non-committally. Though there was a green plastic oval sign out front (Dalia Valle Gymnasium) this was actually more of a speakeasy.  For you could only gain admittance by being referred by a member in good standing.  You also had to say the right things to her, immediately upon entry.

If you saw her and asked for the owner she would throw you out.

If you even said her name hesitantly, like you weren’t sure, she would throw you out.

If you neglected to mention the referral name she would throw you out.

If you asked her if they had aerobics class she would throw you out.

If you made any snide ageist or sexist comment or in any way impugned her qualifications as a trainer she would, of course, throw you out.

She might in fact physically throw you out for any of these offenses (especially the latter) and easily could.  For she was an nth degree black belt in the martial arts, having received her training in the 1950’s in Japan.  In fact, a couple of weeks before I became a member she’d roundhouse kicked a guy a foot taller than her in the nose because he came in with no referral and put his hand on her shoulder.

She told me this story and I certainly knew better than to scoff at it.

Because if you openly scoffed at one of her stories she would throw you out.

I was fortunate in several ways because I became a member and friend and was never thrown out.  And, I got my wish to safely befriend an old(er) person and hear much of their life story.  And this one was certainly not going to die on me.

Dalia Valle from a rare mid ’70’s Miami News story

Referred by my friend and member-in-good-standing Brian, I opened the front door and ascended the slightly tilted cement staircase.  The long unlit staircase led directly to a desk at the top of the stairs behind which sat a bemused looking woman.  I didn’t know it at the time but owing to my Ichabod Crane physique and my height, at least for Dalia, this was like love at first sight.

“Hello Dalia, my name is Bill and I was referred by Brian Willis.”  I delivered the line confidently and looked her right in the eye, smiling.  That was really all it took.  That was my admission for a couple of years of gym work and physical transformation that I am to this day still grateful for.  I had approached humbly, like a mendicant (but not pathetically so).

She asked a little about Brian (perhaps to test me – though he had already alerted her to my arrival) and we chatted a couple of minutes.  She was pleased to learn I had practically zero experience inside a gymnasium.  I soon learned that Dalia’s specialty was transforming mantises like me into viably muscular guys.

She said to me, “Oooh, we’re gonna love you!”

And I knew I was in.  After I paid the ridiculously low membership dues (even for 1985) she showed me around the place.  The equipment was old and a little rusty but in excellent shape, with the help of duct tape occasionally.  Almost everything was free weight.  Like an audiophile refusing to give up LPs in the CD age, she was not yet a convert to all the new Nautilus machines that were popping up everywhere.

She gave me sheets of paper stapled together, a day-by-day diet that I was to follow with an attached exercise regimen, and a workout diary that I would fill in to track my progress.  She told me the one was worthless without the other.  So I followed the diet and came in almost every day and worked out.  I loaded up on protein, shunning bread, and put on weight pretty quickly, fast enough so that she would show me off to new members every time I was there.  More often than not when I’d walk in and say hello to her, she’d be standing on her head on a gymnastics mat in the corner.

She pretty much left me and the other members alone, but sometimes she’d walk over to check on me, always smiling, or to offer a really interesting story (with almost no repeats in two years).  I learned right away that she really couldn’t stand bread (she considered it a dietarily counterproductive food).  She’d occasionally launch into a diatribe about bagels (even now I avoid them).  I once saw her come close to throwing out a long standing member because he kept pronouncing her last name in the Spanish way, like Va-Yay.

She’s say “Valley Valley, why can’t you get it right?”  This guy was making sport of her a little and wouldn’t let it go.  He finally apologized and she stalked off, headed for the gymnastics mat.

She had nothing against the Hispanic world, she just insisted on it that way, as it was her husband’s pronunciation (but her name).  Generally, though, when you were in with her, you were good as gold.

I learned she was a widow and still missed her deceased husband; she never looked at another man after he’d died.  I also learned she’d trained a couple of Mr. Universes many years before and she’d trained an actor who played Tarzan in the movies (not Weissmuller).  So, like me, she’d spent a few years in Hollywood.  Dalia had once turned down an offer to become a pitch-person for a soap company; then to open up a chain of gyms with her name on the front.

She’d say as to explanation “I’m not in it for the money, you know that, after all, look around you.”  She said that line several times while I knew her and every time I’d dutifully look around and regard the duct-taped heavy bag, the chipped floor length mirror.

It was a massive place, one big room with a lot of pics of her students who became Mr. America’s and Mr. Universe’s.  In a corner sat an old TV from long ago (it didn’t work, and Dalia wouldn’t allow the distraction anyway).  There were a couple of bookshelves with trophies.  She always had a fresh copy of the Miami Herald and let me do the crossword and read Edwin Pope.

Some of Dalia’s trophies.

She was derisive of publicity for herself and repeatedly turned down interview requests, allowing maybe three over a thirty year period.  Persistence on the part of the curious was always met with vigorous refusal, and sometimes the threat of a lawsuit.  She didn’t want herself or her gym to be photographed by anybody.

Other than being in the gym or meeting her opening up the door in the morning (I was often her first ‘customer’ of the day), I never saw her, except once.  About a year into my membership I saw a little dark haired lady with movie star shades and a gauzy scarf walking quickly up Lincoln Road.  I recognized her and excitedly said hello, she nodded but regarded me rather frostily.  At the gym later she explained she had gotten used to hiding from any kind of recognition, and that if she had chosen to earlier in life, she could have been famous.

She then told me she was not in this for the money, but instead to help people become fit.  After all, she offered, the evidence was all around me.  I certainly believed her, for she was also a former ballerina who had lived in 2 continents, maybe 3, and rubbed elbows with famous bodybuilders and their trainers.

And nobody really knew who she was except her cadre of fitness enthusiasts, working out at that non-descript gym in that forgotten part of town.

At her gym she was very friendly and a great trainer.  It clearly made her happy to know she was getting people healthy with her mantra of dietary moderation and hard work. She was the only person that I welcomed approaching me in the middle of a set, because I knew there’d be a good story or helpful advice coming.  She could see from across the gym if I was holding a barbell wrong or doing my reps too fast and would hurry over and correct me.  She made sure I stuck to the regimen she had given me; and I guess I did, because I got a lot stronger, and my confidence grew greatly; and to this day I am still wary of bread (and the aforementioned bagel).

After a couple of years of workouts I moved again, this time to New York.  I missed that hot rusty old place with its memories and old trophies and hoped she’d be there forever.  I kept in touch, sending postcards every few months (I’d heard from other gym members that she would show the postcards off).  After another few years I received a VHS tape in the mail, a kind of video diary created by my younger sister for my birthday.

The tape was lovingly crafted by Mary (sister) and our friend Nigel, and when they got together they could get really crazy (Nigel was the mockingly haughty director and Mary was the aspiring, mockingly self-absorbed reporter).  I noticed immediately it was living up to my expectations.  Watching it I also noticed she was visiting my old haunts.

A scene opened on 7th and Washington.

Uh-oh, the gym.  I winced.  Mary and Nigel tromped up the stairs right before closing time, with no warning, no referral and a RUNNING VIDEO CAMERA.

Unreferred strangers bringing publicity.

I thought I was probably watching a horror film (or with it being Dalia, maybe a snuff film).  The camera showed a darkened and nearly deserted gym, one person working out.  My sis then asked for Dalia and then, and then…. she and Nigel proceeded to PLAY WITH THE EQUIPMENT.  A few minutes later Dalia emerged in her street clothes, gauzy scarf in hand (getting ready to close up for the night) and was ambushed by my sister.

Watching this red-faced in New York, I was really glad that Dalia remembered me fondly because otherwise Mary and Nigel might have earned a pair of roundhouse kicks that night.  She bore up well under what I knew was annoying scrutiny (being asked to greet me on the camera and give advice) and after a few minutes (thank goodness) Dalia let them leave out the front door under their own power.  Dalia and I had fallen out of touch by then and that little video was the last I ever saw of her.

By the mid 1990’s, with the South Beach demographic rapidly getting younger and her aging gym appearing even more like an anachronism, an 80 something Dalia Valle closed up her gym for good and joined the Diaspora of elderly folks, presumably headed a little north into Broward.  I never knew though.  I’m still sad the gym’s not there anymore, it was a distinct chapter in many people’s lives, gaining admission to what was really an exclusive club.

I’d know I’ll never find her on Facebook, she’d never be into that stuff, but she’d only be 97 (looking 65 or so I’m sure) years old now and hopefully she’s somewhere doing what she loves, helping some respectful person become fit.

In June of 2012 I was in town again and my wife and I headed up those cement stairs.  I had told her many Dalia stories and wanted to show her where I used to work out.  For the past 15 years or so the old gym has been called “South Florida Boxing,” and they have fixed the place up nicely.  It’s got air conditioning and bright lights.  There’s nice equipment and brand new heavy bags and a boxing ring where Dalia’s gymnastics mat used to be. You can just walk right in and talk to anyone there without the threat of eviction, and for me, anyway, that’s too bad.  It means even the ghosts of her place are now long gone.

The spiffed up former Dalia Valle Gymnasium

 

7 replies
  1. Derek Tyler
    Derek Tyler says:

    Thank you for posting the great story and pics. I went to Dalia Valle’s from1979 until 1981 when my father passed away. I was fifteen when I started to work out there. It was exactly as you described and it is gone forever. She was a wonderful lady and I saw her a couple of times to do her taxes after she had closed the gymnasium. She was a lady of great virtue and character and was of the classic school of hard core bodybuilding. Apparently, she passed away in 2004.

    Thank you again for the memories.

    Reply
  2. Barry Klein
    Barry Klein says:

    I was just telling a friend about Dalia’s gym last week. So this is great to read your story and see those familiar pictures. Its like stepping back in time. I was lucky enough to workout with Dalia from 78-80 and again in 87. She taught me more about eating and working out than anyone else. She did throw a friend of mine out because he asked her name. He deserved this as he was duly warned. Anytime I didn’t work as hard as I should she’d brag about her age and do these very slow moves on the dip bars. I have a Dalia Valle Gym tshirt that I cherish.
    Thank you again

    Reply
  3. CL COHEN
    CL COHEN says:

    thanks, Bill: i was the only female, besides dalia, to train at the gym, in 1978!

    having just arrived from san francisco, i innocently walked up those stairs to see dalia sitting at the desk as if it were her throne {it was!}. well, she looked me up, down and sideways and asked what i wanted. i said i wanted to exercise. {i can hear you laughing} i believe we stared each other down and she put her hand on my shoulder and announced to the training bodybuilders,”this young lady wants to train.” ha ha ha…everyone laughed. i did not flinch and i suppose because i was undaunted, dalia accepted me under her wing. we sat down on that mat and proceeded to talk about yoga, and diet, etc. having been on a macrobiotic diet for thirteen years by 1978, she must have sensed this was no greenhorn she was dealing with…

    i do recall many well-known athletes training there during my stint. from olympic runners to mr. universe, mr. world guys. alex daoud, the former two-term mayor of miami beach also was a beloved trainee of dalia’s.

    oh, those were fabulous days.

    thanks for the memories of the Beach.

    Reply
  4. Alfredo Padron
    Alfredo Padron says:

    Bill,

    Thanks for putting this collection of memories and pictures together and sharing. You could not have done a better job. Like you.. I arrived at Miami Beach in the summer of 1984, I was fifteen at the time and the beach was exactly how you described it (went to Fedco many times). Lincoln Road was a ghost town! I joined Dalia’s gym in 1988 – referred by a friend named Jorge Del Pino – and left in 1990 when my family moved to West Kendall. I remember her mentioning Brian. My favorite piece of exercise equipment was the old wood bench (in the back room near the bathroom) with a strap around it where I did sit-ups – hanging of the edge. I still have a green bumper sticker of Dalia Valle Gymnasium.

    Thank you again.

    Reply
    • Bill Hardesty
      Bill Hardesty says:

      Thanks I’m glad you liked it. I remember that old bench. Hey I’d love to see that bumper sticker if you feel like sending a pic.

      Reply
  5. walter durante
    walter durante says:

    Memories, sweet memories!
    I started training at Dalia’s around 1976 until mid ’80’s if I remember correctly, the regulars there where Kenny Newman, Julio Vago, Alan, Alex Daoud, there were many others of course, but I’ve forgotten their names. Julio and I became very close friends until I left the gym, I then went to Brodie’s on N. River dr. I had moved and this one of closer to where I lived.

    Dalia and I got along great! I remember she even put a picture of me on the wall by her desk. She was a character, to say the least. Incredible knowledge on exercise and nutrition and always helpful, as long as you abode by her rules. I saw her stand up to some pretty big guys when they got a little out of control, she liked order, silence and hard work. No bull, for sure.

    We all had great times while going there, I have only good memories of Dalia, she was a unique personality, I will always miss that gym and the people that frequented it on a regular basis.

    I still workout, am 68 years old and my muscles are still there, Dalia’s principle regarding bodybuilding was a sound one, it has served me well.

    Best wishes to all!

    Reply

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