It all started with the Auerhahn, or wood grouse. The Schuhplattler dances began as imitations of the prancing and stalking that the male wood grouse do during their courtship. Of course, it's hard to picture a wood grouse performing the pretzel figures executed by Almenrausch dancers in the figure-dance Zillertaler, but the footwork, movements and sounds in many of the other (non-figure) dances are much like those of the bird.

Many of the dances are named for the village or regions where they originated, such as Chiemgauer (from Chiemsee) and the Zillertaler (from Zillertal).

Some dances are based on occupations, such as the Mühlradl (miller's dance) and the Holzhacker (woodhopper's dance).