By Ann Reily
---- — For the group of women who had worked together to stay healthy and fit through the holiday season, just getting into their little black dresses was reward enough.
But when a black stretch limo pulled up outside the Natural High Fitness Club at The Tannery Marketplace in Newburyport, they realized they were in for a real treat of an evening.
For four weeks, 15 women — ranging in age from their 20s to 60s — participated in the Little Black Dress Boot Camp, led by Natural High co-owner Nancy McCarthy. Starting in early December, they met twice a week in the evenings and also worked out on their own.
On Sunday, Jan. 5, McCarthy had instructed the women to don their dresses and meet at the fitness club to celebrate their accomplishments. McCarthy’s husband, photographer Jay McCarthy, took picture after picture of the women, including full-length portraits, headshots and group shots.
“Everyone looked so beautiful,” said Carol Gamble, 62, who unearthed from her closet a dress that hadn’t fit her for years. “The theme of having a little black dress, it was fun, it was elegant.”
“We felt special,” said Rosalie Cuticchia, 66, who also wore a dress that she hadn’t put on in a long time.
After the photo shoot, Nancy McCarthy told the women, “Our ride is here!” Surprised by the appearance of the limo, the boot camp “graduates” all piled in for a mystery ride that took them around Newburyport for an hour, driving through Plum Island, past Maudslay State Park and eventually stopping in front of The Port Tavern.
Cuticchia said she loved the ride because it was the first chance she really had to get to know the other women, since they were too busy exercising during boot camp sessions.
“During that ride, I ‘saw’ the women I had been working out with for four weeks,” she said. “We were able to just talk for an hour.”
At the restaurant, McCarthy told them to doff their coats and freshen up their lipstick — “I wanted them to make a grand entrance,” she said.
As the driver guided each woman inside, they quickly realized that, in addition to signature cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, the biggest surprise was still to be revealed.
“Our significant others were waiting for us,” Cuticchia said.
“They were all so proud,” Gamble said. “That was the big finale, to see all their smiling faces. It made it such a complete package.
“To have the limo and the elements of surprise, we were tickled,” she said. “It was magical.”
McCarthy, 67, decided to lead her first boot camp geared toward women after a conversation she had with Gamble, who teaches yoga at the fitness club. Gamble was talking about her personal goals, and she said, “I want to be able to wear a little black dress.”
Though she said she usually tells clients that it is what’s inside that counts, McCarthy knew the idea of feeling confident in a little black dress was one that would appeal to a lot of women. She was right, as the class quickly sold out.
Sarah Raleigh, a 54-year-old Newburyport resident who runs a graphic design business with her husband, was working on getting back in shape after some health issues when she heard about the class. She not only signed up, she also designed the poster that was hung around town.
“I never thought I could do a boot camp,” she said. “It’s hard work, but it’s really fun.”
Though she had ordered a little black dress in her new size of 8, Raleigh ended up winning a dress that McCarthy purchased from Rocas to raffle off. She decided to wear that one — a stretchy, figure-flattering cut that showed off her weight loss — to the celebration.
Gamble, the director of laboratory services at Anna Jaques Hospital, said the boot camp helped take her from a “tight size 12 to a comfortable size 10.” She has lost 22 pounds since October, six from the Little Black Dress sessions.
Cuticchia, a professional painter and retired social worker who lives in Newburyport, has participated in a few of McCarthy’s past boot camps. She joined this one to help maintain her fitness level, especially through the holidays.
“I need to be strong to lift my grandchildren,” she said with a laugh.
Cuticchia said she felt “a greater sense of accomplishment” with this boot camp, mostly due to the specific goal of wearing the dress at the end.
“For the first time, you get to put on something pretty and show off what you’ve accomplished,” she said. “It’s that element of fun that gives it that whole new appeal.”
The Little Black Dress Boot Camp was such a success that McCarthy is now running a new session, Little Red Dress, that started this week and features the chance to win a dress from The Elephant’s Trunk. She is also putting together a book of healthy recipes submitted by the boot camp participants.
Gamble and Raleigh are participating in the Valentine’s Day-themed boot camp, as well.
“It’s a great thing to do in the winter because it gets you off the couch,” Raleigh said.