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Swayed by Love

The Baltimore Sun

That night, when JoAnn Kovacs danced the hula, love was part of the choreography. The band played the Hukilau, a fishing song, and ever so slowly she reeled him in with the smooth rotation of her hips. By the time he finally spoke to her, both their hearts were beating like hands on a log drum.

His hei is made of real shells, she noticed, gazing at the headband in his dark hair.

I love you, Meki To'alepai thought. A few minutes later, he said it aloud.

That was December of 1963, in the basement Hawaiian Room in Baltimore's Emerson Hotel, where Meki's Polynesian dance troupe was performing. JoAnn was seated in the audience, until, inspired by the music and egged on by friends, she stood up to sway herself, drawing Meki's admiring gaze.

His Samoan ancestry, and the fact that she was a white girl from Locust Point, seemed perfectly acceptable at first, even romantic.

Then they tried to get married.

"We were turned away," JoAnn says.

The couple's failed attempt to wed in Maryland led to coast-to-coast publicity and a campaign to end the state's miscegenation law, which banned most forms of interracial marriage. It was repealed 40 years ago this month.

But change came too slowly to suit the To'alepais, who, on Feb. 19, 1966, exchanged vows in Washington, where it was already legal for white women to marry so-called "brown" men. Afterward they held a Polynesian-style reception at the Optimist Club in Hampden, the guests in straw hats and muumuus, the ceiling hung with tropical flowers and spears. Then the newlyweds left for the more enlightened state of California.

In the more than four decades of marriage that followed, the subject of race has rarely surfaced. The To'alepais think of themselves as entertainers, not soldiers of the civil rights movement. They are now living in Locust Point again, having returned to Maryland not long after the law changed, ready to let bygones be bygones.

"We never really talked about it, never really even told our children," JoAnn says.

"We were too busy being happy to be angry," Meki adds.

They were also busy doing the Fijian dwarf dance, the New Zealand Poi ball dance and the Tahitian Hokule'a Ote'a, spending much of their marriage running their own Pacific island performance company, which has toured schools and social halls across the state. The troupe is called Meki's Tamure, "Meki's Fun Group."

Yes, the To'alepais are gratified to know that their love story helped change history, that now their grandkids can marry whomever they please.

But mostly the Flaming Fire Knife dancer and his Locust Point bride are just glad to have had such a good time.

When the To'alepais met, Hawaii had been a state for only a few years, and Pacific culture was all the rage: Stylish people held luaus, and several tiki-themed clubs opened in downtown Baltimore featuring "Hawaiian Revues" and all-you-can eat Pork Kanaka and Tim Tam Shrimp.

JoAnn grew up in the famously insular community of Locust Point, listening to the island melodies of the lovely Haleloke, a frequent performer on Arthur Godfrey's variety show, and dreaming of a more exotic life. In her early 20s, while working as a nurse, she got a part-time job checking coats at an island club, where she learned to hula. Later she sometimes performed professionally, resplendent in necklaces of polished seeds and her Bora Bora headdress with its mohawk of dried grass.

On the other side of the country, at the same time, a young immigrant was discovering that he could get paid to do the sort of dances he'd done for fun back home in Western Samoa, which he left in 1960. So Meki quit his job in a California tennis shoe factory and took his Flaming Fire Knife act on the road, performing with a group at Diamond Jim's in Las Vegas and other Western venues. In the fall of 1963 his group contracted to work at the Emerson Hotel, where they were immensely popular.

JoAnn was on a hula tour in Ohio at the time, but heard about Meki as soon as she returned

"My mom says, 'you've got to see this group,'" JoAnn recalls.

The night that JoAnn danced the Hukilau marked the start of a whirlwind romance and several months of hulu-club hopping. Meki adored JoAnn's sweet manner and pretty face. JoAnn loved Meki's supercharged smile and peculiar habits: He walked her everywhere, even to the bathroom, and tried to horde snowballs in the hotel sink, because he thought he could keep them as souvenirs.

"He was just so different," she says.

But when the Emerson contract ended, Meki had to board a train for California, quietly grieving as he changed from the Baltimore & Ohio to the Pacific line.

"I think I cried the whole way," he says. For more than a year they talked on the phone every night. Then the banana farmer's son asked the longshoreman's daughter to be his wife.

It was a neighborhood priest who told them of Maryland's miscegenation law, which had banned blacks and whites from marrying for more than 300 years, and in 1935 was amended to stop weddings between whites and "the brown race" - a category that included some Pacific islanders.

Do you want to fight this? asked the priest, who wanted permission to alert the press. Sure, the couple said. It seemed like the right thing to do, and besides, the presence of the media would save them the expense of a wedding photographer when they finally did get hitched in Washington.

Reporters showed up in droves, and the To'alepais' story made Time magazine and the major papers. Legislators from Annapolis to Honolulu condemned the law and vowed to fight for a change, and the couple's plight continued to be mentioned in news stories leading up to the law's repeal, on March 24, 1967 -- just a few months before the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia, ending all race-based restrictions on American marriages.

After taking a stand in Maryland, though, the To'alepais turned their backs on the publicity, wanting to start their new life. When journalists gathered at the airport where the newlyweds were scheduled to board a plane for California, they decided to make their escape.

"We just took off on Route 40 instead," JoAnn says.

This time Meki didn't cry as he traveled west.

These days they don't dance as much as they used to. She's 66, he's 67. They've turned over Meki's Tamure to one of their three children, a son also named Meki. They've also given up the day jobs -- hers in nursing, his in highway maintenance -- that used to help make ends meet. Meki senior is involved with the ministry of a Samoan church in Virginia; he is old enough to be considered an elder in the community.

Sometimes it seems a long time ago that they returned to Maryland as husband and wife, when Meki was performing up and down the East Coast and JoAnn was teaching so many Locust Point girls to hula that half the neighborhood was draped in plastic hibiscus leis.

Now they mostly watch their children perform, and their granddaughter, a budding hula girl.

And yet there is one song that brings JoAnn to her feet even at this age. She heard it recently while visiting a nursing home, and suddenly she was dancing, as spontaneously as she had the night she met Meki. It was a number that Meki's Tamure had performed countless times over the years, and it became JoAnn's solo dance, her specialty. She would sway back and forth as her husband played the ukulele and sang:

This is the moment

Of sweet Aloha

I will love you longer than forever

Promise me that you will leave me never

Just humming it brings a smile to her face: the Hawaiian Wedding Song.

abigail.tucker@baltsun.com

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